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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

BLACK SOCIAL HISTORY : AFRICAN AMERICAN " BRENDA ROBINSON " THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN FEMALE NAVY PILOT : GOES INTO THE " HALL OF BLACK HEROES "


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First African American female Navy pilot: ‘I’m surprised that 1980 waited for me’


Brenda Robinson being sworn in as a commissioned officer in the Navy in the late 1970s.Photo courtesy of Brenda Robinson


North Penn alumna Brenda Robinson said a career study program at North Penn High School helped develop her interest in aviation. She spent a few hours a week visiting Wings Field airport in Blue Bell, Pa., during her senior year.Photo courtesy of Brenda Robinson
Lansdale >> She got her adventurous spirit from her mother, North Wales native Brenda Robinson, 58, said during a recent phone interview. She phoned from Charlotte, N.C., the place she now calls home.
Her mother, Susan, a former bus driver for the North Penn School District, did not hesitate to hop on the back of a motorcycle or sit beside Brenda, who became a licensed pilot in her early 20s, when she would fly small, private airplanes out of Montgomeryville Airport in the late 1970s.
“It took nothing to get her into something cool and exciting,” Brenda said. “I totally took after her. I did not see any limitations.”
Brenda’s mother passed away from cancer in 1986, an event that took her and her father, Edward, by surprise, she said.
Fortunately, Susan had the privilege of seeing her only child embark on what appeared to be the ultimate adventure.
Brenda graduated from Navy flight school on June 6, 1980, and became the first African American female pilot in Navy history, she said.
This event brought tears to her father’s eyes.
“Her mother and I attended the ceremony and all I could do was cry, that’s all,” Edward said in a recent, but separate phone interview. “She worked very hard.”
This recognition was an honor and a surprise, Brenda said, but it was also a bit unsettling.
“Being a pioneer is a little unnerving,” she said. “It’s disappointing that (women) before me that thought this was a wonderful career were restricted from it. I’m surprised that 1980 waited for me — a girl from North Wales, Pa., to come along and be the first.”
As a little girl, Brenda said she thought flying was glamorous. Even a trip to pick up a relative at the airport would require Brenda to dress in her Sunday best, she said. Growing up, she never thought she would end up flying one.
“I always thought (airplanes) were something that would be amazing to be part of, but I never thought of it as something I would do for a living,” she mused. “There were no women in aviation, except flight attendants, which I actually thought would be a cool thing to do.
“I never thought I would climb the stairs to an airplane and turn left (into the cockpit). I just always assumed I would turn right and do something (in the cabin).”
Brenda’s career in aviation spans more than 30 years. She was a Navy pilot for 20 years and achieved the rank of lieutenant commander. At the age of 35, she became a pilot for American Airlines, a position she held for 17 years, before she retired in the early 2000s.
During her career, Brenda has flown admirals, senators, congressmen, generals and many other elite officials. As a Navy pilot, she participated in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Gulf War where she regularly flew over Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Europe, according to her biography on her website Successfulattitude.com.
However, Brenda’s desire to fly didn’t come until college. In high school she wanted to be an air traffic controller thanks to a career study program at North Penn High School.
The 1974-North Penn graduate spent a few days a week at Wings Field Airport in Blue Bell during her senior year.
It was there she learned the fundamentals of aviation and air traffic control. She took a helicopter ride above her neighborhood and toured a Philadelphia-based air traffic control tower, she said. After high school, she decided to attend Dowling College in Long Island, N.Y., where she earned a degree in aeronautics and her private pilot’s license at MacArthur Airport in Islip, N.Y., she said.
Then the Navy came calling several months before she graduated college, she said.
In the United States, women have been involved in military service as early as the 1700s from battlefield nurses to saboteurs during the American Revolution to civil service pilots to mechanics during World War II, according to the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation in Washington D.C. However, it wasn’t until 1976 that women were admitted into military service academies and given the opportunity to climb the ranks.
“I was a little hesitant about her going into the Navy,” Edward said. “I thought about the time I was in the service. I am a War World II veteran. When I was in the service it was segregated. Plus, when I was growing up, if you were black and in the Navy, you were more like a servant; you didn’t have a real position. It wasn’t until after the war things slowly started to change, but I still had that thought in my mind.”
Brenda joined the Navy in 1977 and was one of 10 women in the nation selected by the Navy to start boot camp followed by flight training. It was during her trainings in Florida that she befriended African American Navy Officer Nettie Johnson, who’s currently the vice president of marketing communications for Lockheed Martin Corporation.
Being two of the only black women in the Navy, they quickly bonded, and Johnson became a cheerleader for Brenda and the other black student aviators going through training, she said.
“Brenda was very focused and successful,” Johnson said via phone. “I don’t know all the challenges she had … but I do know she set a really great example. She just wanted to be a good aviator.”
Brenda had her share of obstacles, one being that she always had to prove to others that she was qualified to become a Navy pilot, she said.
“To always be on my A-game to always prove that I am who I say I am, was difficult,” she said. “(I would say to myself) ‘Let me just work as hard as I can to be the best that I can. Some (may) eventually look at me and say she’s not as bad as I thought she was going to be.”
Brenda also had the support of many of the other aviation students who helped her review the material so she could pass her flight tests.
“I had a reunion with these guys just a couple of months ago, I hadn’t seen some of them in over 30 years,” she said. “They said to me that they would have sacrificed themselves to make sure I knew what I needed to pass my flights. These guys stayed on top of it.”
In retirement, Brenda has not slowed down. She is a public speaker and travels all around to share her story with others, especially youths.
Growing up, Brenda said her father told her she could be anything she wanted, despite his experiences with segregation and racism. She talks with students and encourages them to do the same by pursuing an education and separating themselves from people who try to hold them back.
“(My father) truly believed that if I became an educated woman, I would be able to take care of myself, understand what was going on around me and make intelligent decisions for myself,” she said. “In the end, that’s all he really wanted for me.”