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According to the FAA, women make up just seven percent of all certified pilots, and of those female pilots, less than one percent are Black women. Captains Kellie Young and Stephanie Hartsfield are among that percentage, having spent careers flying on international legacy carriers, cargo flights, and corporate planes. This week, we're catching up with Kellie and Stephanie to learn about their journeys, the challenges along the way, and how they're paying it forward for Black female pilots of the future. Both are a part of Sisters of the Skies, a non-profit dedicated to mentorship, scholarships, and outreach to young Black women to follow in their footsteps into the pilot's seat.
Thanks to Kellie and Stephanie for joining us and thanks, as always, to Brett Fuchs for engineering and mixing this episode. As a reminder, you can listen to new episodes of Women Who Travel on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, every Wednesday.
Read a full transcription of the episode below.
Lale Arikoglu: Hi everyone. And welcome to Women Who Travel Podcast from Conde Nast Traveler. I'm Lale Arikoglu and with me as always is my co-host Meredith Carey.
Meredith Carey: Hello.
LA: The past year has been a strange one for air travel. So this week we're talking to two incredible pilots about how they got into the skies and what the last 12 months have looked like at work. Joining us from Fort Lauderdale is Stephanie Hartsfield, a commercial pilot and commander in the Naval reserves. And from Atlanta, Kellie Young, a flight instructor, cargo pilot, and the first black female pilot for the Coca-Cola company. Thanks so much for joining us!
Stephanie Hartsfield: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
Kellie Young: Thank you.
MC: So to kick it off, I figured we'd go back to the beginning. How did travel or flying factor into your lives growing up?
SH: I will say that I come from a traveling family. My mother's nickname is GoGo given to her by my cousin who witnessed her always going, going, going, and was like, "I want to go go." And so it became Auntie GoGo. My grandparents would travel all over the world. They were both ordained ministers in the American Baptist church, and so they traveled. I remember my first passport was when I was, I think, two years old and I had to get updated when I turned four to go on a family trip-we did a flight from JFK to Lagos, Nigeria, and then multiple countries in West Africa at four years old. So my earliest memories of my grandparents are related to traveling and they nicknamed me their traveling buddy. So I would say I have a wanderlust gene.
MC: I'm obsessed with GoGo-that is so great. Kelly how about you?
KY: When I was six years old, my mother took a job with Delta Airlines working for their credit union, which she did intentionally so that we would be able to travel as kids. She never left the state of Georgia until she was 21 years old, married to my father, and pregnant with me. So her first flight was when I was six and we went to Tampa as a family. And from there, I just wanted to read all the travel books that there were, that's all I wanted to check out from the library and it really sparked my interest in just wanting to see what else the world had to offer.
LA: I think it's really interesting what you said about how you just wanted to soak up all these travel books. And I think so much of when you're traveling as a child, it shows you what is possible and the opportunities that lie ahead of you. Do you think both of you, if you hadn't had that connection travel growing up, that you would have considered going into aviation as a possibility?
SH: I don't think I would realize until I actually flew the plane myself that, that was a possibility for me. And it may have been because of role models. It may have been because of socialization and how we imagine ourselves as adults when we're children. It just doesn't necessarily connect for me until I actually took that discovery flight and then it all made sense. It's like, "Oh, here's the freedom I love. Here's the control of this amazing machine and, Oh, here's this excitement and this thrill of this dynamic sequence of events that gets me into the air and above all of the drama and traffic of Atlanta." And it was so invigorating that it really wasn't like a cornerstone event for my life. I had to change everything I was doing to get after this pursuit of aviation.
KY: Same, I agree with Stephanie, it's something that just makes you feel alive. And you don't really know that it exists, unless you get to go through the steps of actually doing it, boarding the aircraft and hearing the safety presentation and getting to feel the takeoff and how exhilarating it is to land. I definitely do not think it would have been something I would've ever considered had my mom not taken me on those flights. Those experiences mattered.
MC: Stephanie, you were talking about that first discovery flight. How did you both get to the point where you were like, "I want to take a discovery flight. I want to go into training as a pilot." How did you even get there?
SH: That question leads me to an answer that is one of my funniest stories. I was a ninth grader and I will be honest. I struggled in my ninth grade year. The transition for me was just dramatic. I went from just this ballerina dance girl to, "Hey, I like boys to, Oh my gosh, I have to get a training bra. Oh my God." It was like... and, "Oh, by the way, here's all this access to these big kids who have cars and could help us break rules like leaving school early." And I won't even say anything else on this recording. But my grades were suffering and I was just struggling to fit in socially.
Fast forward to somewhere in the spring of my freshman year, we had a magnet program that required us to participate in the geography bee. So going into the idea that I've always loved travel, geography is my favorite subject-I still didn't want to be there on a Saturday. And my friends and I had conspired to bomb the event so we could get out as soon as we could. Anyways, we were all required to stay for the whole event. So it was like, Uh oh, now we've got to actually perform.
And I really found myself in the final round and they ran through all the prizes that were going to be awarded. First place was this laundry list of things and a sailing lesson. And then the second place was the same things, except it was a free flight lesson. And I'm like, in my mind immediately saying, "This is over. I want to go fly." And I let it play out. And I was able to negotiate the flight lesson, even though I won the contest, according to my mom. I don't think I knew how it was going to affect me, but that was exciting to me and that was where it all began for me. I left that magnet program that was in international studies and went to the math and science magnet program, still Atlanta public schools, but definitely a focus on STEM-related education. And so that has made the difference for me entirely.
MC: What a serendipitous story-that is so lovely.
SH: Yeah. I had to go to summer school and get my grades up, but it worked.
MC: But it worked, but it worked. Kelly. how about you?
KY: In my case, it was yet again, my mother through her job at the airlines, she constantly had employees that would come in, needing help at the credit union. And one happened to be a pilot one day and [my mom] mentioned that she had a daughter that was interested in aviation, among all the other things. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to be a lawyer. And honestly, the only reason why I hadn't quite settled on aviation though, I lit up every time we would go to the local airport for dinner, was because I had never seen a pilot that looked like me.
So this pilot told my mother about a summer camp, that the organization of what was airline professionals at the time or airline pilots, excuse me, in conjunction with Delta Airlines hosted every summer free of charge to students in the Atlanta Georgia area. I was 18 years old, a month outside of high school graduation. And she was just like, "Hey, I know you've got these college plans, you're going to go to state school, you want to be an English major." That was what I had temporarily decided anyhow and, "But I think you should do this summer program." And my mother being super close to me and just knowing me really well, I took her up on it. I applied and I got in, and it changed my life.
Over the course of that summer, similar to Stephanie, we were able to do a discovery flight. We were also able to tour the techs ups facilities of the local airlines and some of the cargo carriers. I got to meet real life pilots who looked like me for the first time in my life. And it was from that moment when they made the announcement at the end of that camp, they were like, "Well, there's another camp. And instead of it being like the 80 to 90 of you, it's only 10 and there was a lot more rigorous application process and interview process. But if you're chosen, you get 40 hours of ground instruction and 15 hours of flight instruction."
If you passed all of the requirements, then essentially you get to solo and aircraft by yourself. And for me, I was just like, wow, whenever am I going to get the opportunity to do something like this. So the summer after my freshman year of college though, I was a year or two old-because I was very persuasive and convincing-they decided to allow an 11th student into the normally 10-student program. And I did complete all the training and I solo the summer that I was 19, and needless to say, I left English and all of that behind and started chasing airplanes, which has undoubtedly paid off.
LA: So when you talk about soloing a flight, that's you flying the plane?
KY: Yes. Sorry about that.
LA: At 19.
KY: My 19 year old self and believe it or not, you can do it much younger. You can solo a plane before you can drive a car. I know that probably has a little disconcerting to some people, but yes, the single engine Cessna 172 was the first aircraft that I flew, three takeoffs and three landings where you come to a complete stop and you taxi back between each one-that's considered your solo flight. And at the end of it, they cut your tail of your t-shirt on your back and your instructor writes the date and the airport that you were at. And it's just something... I still have that, it meant a lot but it was everything.
LA: What does that first lift off feel like?
KY: The first one alone is scary, but in a strange way, I had never felt more free. And I think for me that was the feeling that I knew I would be chasing for the rest of my life.
MC: Stephanie, how was your first flight where you were in control?
SH: Yes. I think that that same experience of manipulating the controls, being basically the sole proprietor of this adventure, it was that invigorating. It's like, I'll never stop loving this, no matter how much struggle I go through. And I've been through a lot. Although I started at 13, I didn't actually solo until I had finished college. So, but yes, it was that same gratifying feeling. And I use the word feeling a lot because I think there are people out there who really get into aviation for the gear and the science and the physics behind it. And I'm very much emotional and feeling about it.
MC: Once you had both, either settled on or settled into the path of pursuing aviation and being a pilot as your potential future career, what was that experience like? What was it like starting out in aviation as a young pilot?
SH: I will say that starting out in aviation as a young pilot was, let's say circuitous, because it's never how you think it's going to go. Like I said, I started when I was 13. I didn't actually solo until I was 22 and then I didn't get my private pilot's license until I was 23. And then I didn't actually get, I say, into the career groove. I didn't fly in the military, which is what I had intended, and so some of what I signed myself up with in the military protracted the process. But once I got in the right frame of mind, I needed guidance, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, OBAP, was a foundation for me. I joined them as a private pilot and made contact with different mentors who gave me guidance on how I should proceed to get a commercial license.
With general aviation, it's one lesson at a time and ground school. And so I did a very accelerated program, in that I was going seven days a week. Once I had that private pilot license, I worked on my instrument rating, which is basically to be able to fly without seeing outside the window. And once that milestone was accomplished, it was like, boom, three months later, I'm a certified flight instructor.
And now it's really just like, "Okay, here's your certificate to be able to learn." Because really, you never stop learning. And it certainly was a whirlwind experience and I was broke as a joke. I was just trying to rub two nickels together to make it work, but I was so happy because I was doing what I love doing seven days a week and I was exhausted by it but that was even more exciting.
MC: Kelly, what about you? What was your experience like?
KY: Very similar to Stephanie's. I did not go the military route either, choosing to go rather instead through an accelerated program. I completed the majority of my ratings when I was 22 years old, but very similarly is a lot of money. My parents really didn't have it to contribute. So there's a combination of a lot of loans. A lot of fundraisings, a couple of scholarships, which I was really fortunate to receive but a lot of really hard work ultimately. And just that being what I lived, ate, slept, breathed, seven days a week for about a year straight until I also received my certified flight instructor certificate, which as Stephanie did say is kind of your license to learn. And I learned so much in teaching the students that I had.
Ultimately I even had to move out to California to work for a flight school for about a year and a half, just because at that point in time, we were in the recession back in 2008 and there weren't very many flight instructor jobs at all locally. So I actually got the opportunity to teach a lot of foreign students, but that in and of itself has definitely contributed to, I guess, just what it is to do something in service of a dream. When it was hard, when I was broke, when I was lonely, when I miss my family, when I didn't have the opportunity to do some of the things that my friends who had chosen other career paths were doing, I don't regret any of it. But definitely I look back on it and I understand what all the hard work was for and how it helped contribute to the person that essentially this industry has continued to make all of the female pilots that I've known.
LA: Yeah. You both mentioned the financial challenges and how at points you were pretty broke. During those programs, did you get the sense that your fellow students were facing similar financial barriers or do you think it was varied? And do you think there should be more scholarships, like the ones that you managed to take part in, Kelly?
KY: It definitely was varied. I opted to go to a private university. I was only able to afford it for the period of about a year and a half and I had a work study job. I had a part-time job on top of a full course load and trying to do flight lessons all at once. And I will admit it was sometimes a little disheartening to see the students who could go out on the weekends or didn't have to work so many jobs in between classes, in between flight lessons. And luckily again, I had enough peers and I had my family who was supportive and would try to lend me the encouragement that I needed.
I definitely think far more scholarships would have been helpful. There's a lot more of that that exists now, including through the organization at both Stephanie and I are a part of, Sisters of the Skies. That's one of the primary things that we advocate for and I'll let her expand a little bit more on that. But that is definitely the key, as far as what I've been able to tell, just especially with black female pilots. It's the access that matters and it's also the representation. So I'm here for more scholarships.
LA: Stephanie, do you want to talk a little bit about Sisters of the Skies?
SH: I would love to. So Sisters of the Skies is a non-profit organization and what our mission is, is scholarship, mentorship, and outreach. And we are focused really on all three of them, but our growing capability is in that scholarship realm. We used to make a joke. It was like at some point it'll only be trust fund babies that can become pilots because of the expense. And when the price of fuel went up, the price of flight training went up and I don't know that it's come back down. It's just maybe plateaued. But I said all of that to say, even if we get somebody who's got the flying bug, their biggest challenge in all likelihood will be that financial hurdle.
There are other things that will come into play. And that's where I think our mentorship program helps because we do struggle with the emotion and the side of being, I think what we call unicorns in this industry. I'll just throw you some statistics, but it's like, we are less than a one percent presence in the aviation career field in the United States. It's actually less than a 10th of a percent and so that has got to change, and that's part of what our mission is geared towards. The vision is to see our sisterhood increase so that when myself and Kelly move on to do other things in our transition-I won't call it retirement-there'll be at least 10 people behind us that represent our same demographic in that career field.
MC: I think that's a really sobering statistic, especially considering just seven percent of all pilots are women, according to the FAA. You both spoke earlier about representation. How have those statistics impacted your experience as pilots?
SH: Well, it's hard for me to quantify that impact. I will tell you this. I came through the military and when I was commissioned, it was just after the combat exclusion law was lifted. So I started out in the Naval Navigator program, Naval Flight Officer program. And I was the first of my type to appear in that training space, that pipeline. And there were people who either wholly endorsed what I was doing, or there were people who were adamantly opposed to it. And it was hard to tell why, it was hard to tell who was for it or against it, unless they were very vocal about supporting me. But there were so many subjective milestones where you can't even see what's happening. The idea that somebody would try to characterize you based on how you look and not how you perform, it was difficult to untangle.
And I got to a point where I had completed the syllabus and I was flying with a guy who was prepared to give me this unsatisfactory grade. And that's an actual category of grading and I had completed everything I needed. He was just showing me a demonstration and it was like, "Oh, I got her." And I said to him, "Is it possible that you would have the ability to give me the equivalent of a below average score before you actually give me this unsatisfactory?" And he says, "No, if I lower my standards for you, I'd have to lower my standards for everyone." And so that to me inferred that he thought somehow lower standards had resulted in my success to get to that point. And that was two years into it, thoroughly disgusted, but actually in hindsight-fully in hindsight-I'm glad that happened because then I didn't commit myself to the navigator job, which would have incurred another seven-year commitment for the Navy. And I also didn't want to fight it. So at that point, I had the choice to either try to fight to stay or go ahead and request to re-designate.
And that's how I ended up re-designating to Supply Corps, but it was a very difficult choice to make. Very much part of my personality is if you tell me no, I'm going to fight to say yes, so it was tough for me to walk away, but it was ultimately the best thing for me because it got me focused back on the goal of flying and being the pilot that I wanted to be.
I will say that the needle is moving, it's finally starting to, I think move towards the direction of diversity. And our organization is starting to see that as we grow, and we know we're not going to have every black woman that flies join us but our numbers are definitely increasing. This past year, we increased by 60 percent. So we're at the point where we're over a 100 total members and that's women who are commercially rated or better. So that's a milestone in and of itself to get to that point. And we're seeing in our mentorship program, young women who either are doing career transition or who have embarked on the aviation training journey, go through one year in the mentorship program and then come in as members within that 12 month period, because they will have achieved their commercial rating, while they were working in the mentorship program with us.
So that's very gratifying. We basically went from like zero in to over a 100, maybe probably in the last three decades. There was always one or two here or there. Our heritage, or our lineage maybe, goes back to Bessie Coleman, and this is her 100th anniversary of her achieving her pilot license and she was the first African-American pilot-period. And she had to travel to France to accomplish that. So yeah, we're coming from a place where there was very, very much... a difficult road to go, just to get the opportunity to being able to provide the funding and the guidance and the outreach to young women of color to get to that place.
MC: Kelly, when you were talking about going to your first summer camp and seeing somebody who looked like you. Now that you have a career in aviation, thinking about representation, what does that look like in your life right now?
KY: It matters to me significantly. I do have a number of mentees as it was mentors who paved the way for all of the doors that I essentially learned to develop the tools to open on my own, because it's not as if my mentors could go and actually do it for me. And there were a lot of places and rooms that I ended up finding myself in that I didn't know, How loud am I allowed to raise my voice? How much am I allowed to show up as myself in this space and still be respected and developed? Does my career matter just as much as everyone else's? And I do feel like over the course of my career, through the people that have poured into me and then my current ability now to actively and intentionally pour into other young girls, it does mean everything. It means that, as Stephanie said, the needle is finally moving. Especially in the sector that I work in now with corporate aviation, there's not a lot of female representation much less, a black female representation in that world either. And I do take some of the remarks occasionally that I'll get from people on the ramp...I've actually been stopped to say like, "Can you show me your aircrew badge? Where is it that you're going exactly?" At airports that I've been in and out of for years.
But again, I think even fully dressed in uniform, people sometimes aren't able to see what they haven't actually seen. So I don't take those opportunities negatively in the sense that yeah, it could get me down, but in the same token, I can say, "Hey, yes, this aircraft over here that I fly. Do you want to come look at it? Do you want a tour? Do you want to know things about just what I do day to day?" I don't take it as a, I guess, a negative in the sense of it's not going to stop me. It just propels me again to reach out and to pull people forward.
LA: You mentioned that there aren't many black women in corporate aviation and like I mentioned before, you're the first Black female pilot at Coca Cola. What does it feel like to hold the title of first?
KY: It feels some days a little lonesome, and I don't say that in the sense that I don't have a community, because I think that's a natural feeling. It's a natural feeling to be, I guess, somebody that just introduces new ideas into a space that is quite used to operating in the sense that it's been. But I get to bring every sister that I've met along my journey with me into that space. So for me, there's a lot of responsibility, but also in knowing that that lonesome feeling that's temporary because I'm never truly alone. And I know that however long I stay in this space, even if it's for the next 30 years of my career, there will be multiple of me able to walk in those steps, because I'm walking in the steps of those that have gone before me.
LA: So pilots and flight attendants have had to deal with furloughs or the threat of furloughs throughout the pandemic in the past year. What has the past year been like for you?
SH: So I will tell you that I in the last 12 months have flown very little, the company that I fly for is an international carrier, a legacy carrier. And they started talking about furloughs somewhere in the late spring, and this idea of WARN letters, where they're going to alert people that there's a potential of being furloughed, started happening in the late summer. I am fortunate based on seniority that I haven't received a WARN letter. We actually have just been notified of our second round of WARN letters that went out and I'm still again in good fortune.
But because the plane that I back in March of 2020, was grounded-I was on the Boeing 757/767, mostly on international trips. They were grounded almost immediately when we went into quarantine, so I didn't fly for about nine months because of that grounding and then getting scheduled for training and being in a seniority-based line to get retrained. So I went back to the aircraft that I flew before, which is the Airbus 320, and it's an international-qualified position that I hold. So we have been doing some international flying, but it's like much more limited than previously. So far, I've only been to Mexico and the Caribbean.
LA: When I think back to last March, everyone was in a state of shock because it felt like it all happened so quickly. Even if that wasn't quite the case. What was that early period of being grounded like?
SH: Well, it's funny. Because at first I was excited. I was like, "Oh, this is the most time I've spent at home consecutively." And then I think about week six, I'm looking at my husband and his eyes and I'm like, "Baby, this is going to make us or break us." He's just like busted out laughing because it's like, "Oh my God, I didn't really want to say anything, but I'm like, 'Don't you have a trip to go on at some point.'" So we made it, thanks God. Yes. It's actually brought us closer together. And I think a common theme is that we've had more connection, even if it hasn't been there in-person with our family. And we've had obviously between the two of us more connection and I've just really been grateful every day that I have him in the same space and that we're growing together because yeah, there are probably plenty of people who are like, "Oh, I can't get out of here fast enough." And I don't want to make light of that tragedy either.
MC: Kelly, what has the 12 months? And maybe those first beginning thoughts, what has that been like for you?
KY: I pretty much would have to echo Stephanie initially. It was like, wow, this is the most time I've spent at home. And almost 15 years, just between all of the traveling and flying jobs and it was nice at the time my then fiance, it was just like, "Oh great. We have time to cook all these recipes and catch up on Netflix." And then it was withdrawal from doing what it was I've always dreamed to do.
And 75 percent of the travel that my company does as well is international. So we conducted our final flight about mid-March and we're all hopeful, just like, "Okay, well, just give it a month, two months, and we'd follow back up." And nothing changed. I am very fortunate in the sense that our flight department is still here. It's still strong. We have resumed limited travel. Most countries, there are such stringent requirements for entry and re-entry into the U.S again, that it's almost not worth going. And so a lot of the executives have gravitated to virtual, which again is good. It makes things efficient, but it keeps us grounded and we are hopeful later this year that things will resume more of a normal schedule. Be nice to get back into the world and my now husband, I got married in quarantine, in a civil ceremony-
MC: Congratulations, first of all.
LA: Just slipped that one in!
KY: Thank you Because we made it, we survived. We were just like, we can't make it through this, I don't really know what to tell you. So again, there was a lot of good in the year, ironically enough, there was a lot of joy. But definitely looking forward to getting back to business as usual.
LA: Just to ask one more question. So we don't wrap up quite on-
MC: On the pandemic note.
LA: On a pandemic note, which is that... looking to that future, which starts to feel a little bit closer. Both of your jobs have taken you to so many places around the world. If you could just get in your plane, where's the first place you'd go?
SH: So it's funny you asked that, Kelly and I were talking about it earlier. I started making a list when we went into lockdown and like the first, actually, by the way, the first five places were all within the U.S. I want to go to Seattle and I want to see the Public Market. I want to go to Washington D.C. I used to live there and I'm like, Oh man, I miss my friends in DC. I want to be able to do the things that I used to be able to go do when I went to D.C. And then start to think about, why haven't I been skiing? How about if I go to Colorado? And yeah, so a lot of it, it's been these domestic dreams, travel dreams.
MC: I love that.
LA: Love that.
KY: Same here. Honestly, I think when you can't go anywhere in the world, your backyard becomes really interesting. Because you're like, "Hey, this is not too far. Maybe we could drive. Maybe we could do something along those lines." But yeah, we thought about going snowmobiling out in Breckenridge. We haven't gone anywhere, but absolute dream? I want to go to Marrakech. It's been on the list for a while. I haven't gone there even for work. So it's pretty high up there-but really anywhere at this point.
MC: If people want to keep up with where you're going from work and where you're going on, hopefully soon vacation, where can people find you both on social media?
SH: My handle is @pilotsteph. It's very easy. I'm on Clubhouse now, on Twitter, and on Instagram. And I want to just say I gave up Instagram for Lent. I will see how long that lasts.
MC: Noted, noted.
LA: And great decision.
MC: Kelly. How about you?
KY: I can be found on Instagram at @shefliesjets.
MC: That's a good handle.
KY: And that's it-I'm limited on social media.
LA: That's great. And then actually to that earlier point, if people want to look up Sisters Of The Skies, where should they head?
SH: So, yes, they're also on Instagram and Twitter with the handle @sistersoftheskies, plural skies, and then Facebook as well. And we're also on LinkedIn there too.
MC: Perfect. You can find me at @ohheytheremere.
LA: And me at @lalehannah.
MC: Be sure to follow Women Who Travel at @womenwhotravel on Instagram, subscribe to our newsletter and join our Facebook group. We will have links to Sisters Of The Skies and Stephanie and Kelly's social media in the show notes. So be sure to check them out and we'll talk to you next week.