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First Black Female Commercial Passenger Airline Captain Paving Way For Future Aviators

DENVER (CBS4) — As Coloradans celebrate Black History Month, a trailblazer among Black aviators is working to make sure more young Black Coloradans have opportunities to take to the skies. United Airlines Captain M'lis Ward, a Denver resident, said she is working with her employer to make sure those in marginalized communities can access a future in the airline industry.

"In 1998 I became the first Black woman to become captain at United Airlines," Ward said.

Ward was not only the first Black woman to become a captain for United, but she was also the first Black woman captain for any commercial passenger airline in the United States.

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(credit: M'lis Ward)

However, even nearly 25 years after she made the historic move to being a captain, there are few Black women working as pilots in the profession.

"There is incredible room for growth for African Americans in the aviation industry," Ward told CBS4's Dillon Thomas.

United Airlines currently employs more than 14,000 pilots.

"Less than 2,000 of those pilots are either women or racial minorities," Ward said. "For young women and minorities that opportunity is not there because there was no one ahead of them. So what we have to do is create those pathways."

Ward said a majority of pilots come from families with roots in the aviation world. The profession has been dominated by white men for so many years that the profession tends to cycle through the same families.

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(credit: CBS)

Ward did not come from an aviation background. She grew up near Chicago and eventually went to school in California on scholarship through the ROTC.

After joining the military Ward was exposed to aviation and fell into becoming a pilot.

Without the exposure to the skies from the military, Ward says she isn't sure if she would've become a pilot.

To make sure other young Black girls consider the possibility of being a pilot one day, Ward is now working with United Airlines and their newly developed "Aviate Academy."

The Aviate Academy was created by United to give more people from more diverse backgrounds the opportunity to learn about flying.

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CBS4's Dillon Thomas interviews Capt. M'lis Ward. (credit: CBS)

"It really does create a pathway for those that would have never had that opportunity in the first place," Ward said. "We have to give some deference to people who normally would not have that opportunity. Whether it is because of exposure of financial ability. We have to get young black girls interested in flying."

Ward said her company's recent commitment to broaden their reach to minority communities is best for the industry as a whole.

"Maybe I won't be just a story anymore, because Black women pilots will become more common," Ward said. "In the spirit of Black History Month, where we are looking to the past of the Tuskegee Airmen, and Bessie Coleman, I would also say look to the future, because it is you. The future is any black child that wants to be a pilot, you can do it and we are here to help you find that path."

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