The Sky’s the Limit

Cover story, Fayette Woman, February 2010

February 12, 2009 started out as just an ordinary day for Fayetteville resident Diana Galloway, a flight attendant with Atlantic Southeast Airlines, based out of Hartsfield Jackson Airport.

But by the time it was over, Galloway and the ASA crewmates she flew with that day—Captain Rachelle Jones, First Officer Stephanie Grant, and flight attendant Robin Rogers—had made history. Together, theirs was the first ever commercial flight crew composed entirely of African American women.

And it happened by accident.

That morning, the crew assembled on the aircraft, a CRJ-700, for a flight from Atlanta to Nashville. Originally along with Captain Jones, Galloway and Rogers was a different First Officer, and the crew made their first round trip flight as scheduled. However, thirty minutes before the crew’s next departure, the original First Officer fell ill. First Officer Stephanie Grant was sitting on reserve at the airport, and ASA’s Scheduling office called her to fill in.

Grant stepped on board to report for the flight, and the “Fab Four”—as the all-female, all-black crew came to be known— was born.

“We all looked at each other and just laughed. We were so excited and enthusiastic,” recalls Galloway. “We started joking about it being the Soul Sister flight. But we didn’t think that anyone else noticed.”

Captain Jones, who was well aware that she‘s currently one of only ten African-American female commercial airline captains in the country, immediately recognized that the flight could be an historical first. She instructed the others to be in top form just in case, although she was brimming with excitement as well.

The flight to Nashville went smoothly, and after the plane landed and the passengers disembarked, the crew asked a customer service agent to take some photos of them together. “We wanted to savor the moment,” explains Galloway, who noted that some of the passengers were taking photos of the Fab Four as well. “Pictures began to circulate onto the Web and landed us straight into the history books.”

As it turned out, there was a further historical significance to the date of the crew’s flight. February 12th was not only right in the middle of Black History Month, but it was also the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. The flight also occurred about three weeks after the inauguration of the nation’s first African-American president, and excitement over that major milestone was still running high.

Consequently, within twenty-four hours, reports of the flight and its historic significance had become national news. Media outlets of every size picked up on the story: newspapers, countless blogs and websites, Channel 11 News in Atlanta, even CNN. The crew began to receive congratulatory e-mails from all over the country and all over the world, including England, Africa and Australia. Eventually, the story would make its way to the pages of Jet magazine and Ebony magazine, where one of the photos of the Fab Four appeared alongside of their place as #7 on a list of “The Top Ten Things We’re Talking About.”

“It seems fitting that this historic flight happened to take place during Black History month,” said ASA President and COO Brad Holt in a company press release. “Not only are these women gifted in their professions, but they set examples for young people across the country that with hard work, passion and determination, the sky is the limit.”

Fitting, indeed. Each of the Fab Four women has followed her own path of hard work and perseverance, and despite the role that serendipity played in First Officer Grant’s joining the crew that day, what this historic day really comes down to is the tremendous effort that all of the women have put forth to follow their ambitions and build successful careers.

For Rachelle Jones, building a career as a pilot came from two sources of inspiration. The first is her mother, who always encouraged her to pursue her dreams. “My mother raised me to believe I can do anything I want to do in life. I couldn’t have gotten where I am today without her prayers and encouragement.” Jones cites her second source of inspiration as Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to obtain a pilot’s license, who overcame numerous obstacles—a childhood of poverty and hardship in addition to racial and gender discrimination— in her successful quest to become a pilot.

Like Bessie Coleman, Jones refused to let the male-dominated field of aviation hinder her. As it happened, though, Captain Jones got her start in the airline industry working as a customer service agent for Delta. At first, her ambition was to be a flight attendant, but a conversation with a friend made her think differently. As Jones explained in the CNN interview, “Basically, a friend of mine said you should think about being a pilot. I said, I’ve never seen anyone that looked like me that flew airplanes. And he just kind of put the thought in my head. And I said, well, I think I’ll try this and go for this.” After extensive training, she earned her certificates and secured a job with Atlantic Southeast Airlines, her first choice, in 2005. Even before the Fab Four flight, she had already earned a berth in the company’s history by becoming ASA’s first African-American female pilot.

For First Officer Stephanie Grant, the road to the cockpit was likewise paved with hard work and encouragement from her family. In Grant’s case, flying planes ran in the family: her uncle in the Air Force introduced her to planes when she was a child, and her cousin, Herman Samuels, was a pilot for American Airlines and a member of the first all-male African-American commercial flight crew in 1986.

A native of Sumter, S.C., Grant enlisted in the Army after her graduation from Hampton College. Although her initial goal of being a pilot in the military didn’t work out, Samuels inspired her to change her mind about continuing to pursue her dream. “We had a conversation about five years ago, and he told me it’s now or never. And that’s when I made the decision to become an airline pilot,” Grant says.

Flight attendant Robin Rogers, a native of Atlanta, followed a less direct career path into the airline industry. She initially pursued a career as a social worker, earning her bachelor’s degree in social work from Kennesaw State University. Rogers then managed a day care center, when one of the children’s parents caught her attention. “One day a guy came in [to pick up his child],” Rogers explained to Air Line Pilot magazine, “and he looked so good, so polished, I was really impressed. He was a flight attendant. And he looked like me.”

Rogers began her career at Atlantic Southeast Airlines ten years ago and, like the other women of the crew, credits her mother with being a positive role model and inspiring her to follow her ambitions. “I wouldn’t have any other job,” she says. “ You get to meet a lot of different types of people and have a great schedule, which gives me a lot of time to spend with my family”.

As for Fayetteville’s Diana Galloway, her interest in flying came early in life when, as a child, she flew from her native Manchester, England to Barbados at the age of six. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, she first wanted to be a pediatrician when she grew up, but later changed her mind.

“We traveled a lot, and I was always so fascinated with the flight attendants. I would just watch them as they busied themselves taking care of the passengers. I thought, ‘This is something I would like to do. It seems so glamorous and would give me a chance to see the world.’”

However, by the time Galloway was in her early 20s, she was already married and raising a family. “My husband was not about to let me prance around the world at that time,” she says, smiling.

While Galloway was disappointed, it was something she decided to focus on as a goal for the future. And when she turned 40, the time seemed right: she and her family moved from Austin, Texas to Fayetteville so that, after passing the interviews with ASA, she could enroll in the five-week training program.

“There were several times I didn’t think I would make it through, but my children were rooting for me. That was all the encouragement I needed,” Galloway says, and counts the day that she graduated from the flight attendant program nine years ago as one of her happiest. “My husband had the honor of pinning on my wings at the graduation ceremony.”

And she’s found that the waiting and the intense work has been worth it. While she’ll admit to the occasional hassles of flight delays, inclement weather, and distressed passengers, Galloway loves the constantly changing life of a flight attendant. “I get to meet a lot of different people, see a lot of interesting places. The schedule is great, too, since it gives me a lot of time to spend with my family.” Having extra time has allowed her to pursue several hobbies, including writing, cooking and traveling. She also works as a volunteer for Promise Place, the Fayette County organization that assists victims of domestic abuse, and is deeply committed to her involvement in her church, Divine Faith Ministries.

As she reflects on the Fab Four flight, Galloway is still amazed that what started as an ordinary day became something extraordinary. “I just went to work, did my job, yet we as a foursome really did accomplish something. Stephanie and Rachelle, especially, they had to go through a lot to get where they are. We did break barriers…I’m still in ‘pinch me’ mode over the whole thing.”

Just as they were inspired by other role models in their lives, now Jones, Grant, Rogers and Galloway are in a position to inspire others. They are four different women with four very different career paths who converged on February 12, 2009—an accident, or fate, perhaps. But it’s no coincidence that all four women possess a deep determination to follow their ambitions and a strong work ethic to realize their goals. These women do not take “no” for an answer. They do not allow stereotypes or preconceptions – about what color or gender a pilot should be, or what age a person should be when she decides to attend flight school – to ever hold them back.

“I want everyone to know that it is never too late,” Galloway says. “You can be anything you want. Just do it.”

Grant agrees. “No matter what you want to be, you have to work hard at it. This is our dream. I’m proud to be in a country where anything is possible,” she says proudly.

Not surprisingly, the women have been invited as guest speakers and scholarship presenters for numerous organizations, including the Organization of Black Pilots, the convention of the Regional Airline Association, and the Bessie Coleman Foundation, where Captain Jones was last year’s convention keynote speaker.

“That’s what we’re trying to do now—to inspire young girls of all colors to the industry. We tell them that there is no excuse not to try to follow your dream,” says Galloway. “I know we’re going to see more women, more African-American women in the industry,” she adds.

“When all of us are dead and gone, this is how we will live on—by inspiring and empowering others. This is a legacy of sorts for me.”