Meet Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw: United Airlines first officer & co-founder of Sisters of the Skies

Avatar for Natasha McKentyBy Natasha McKenty | May 5, 2022

Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 27 seconds.

It was March 29, 2016, when then-United States Coast Guard (USCG) lieutenant, Angel Hughes, sent a direct message to Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw, a United Airlines first officer.

“How many sisters do you think are in the skies?” she asked.

The pair could only come up with the names of 20 Black women in commercial or military aviation roles. 

Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw, United Airlines first officer and co-founder of Sisters of the Skies. Photo courtesy of Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw

A bleak reality, the answer to Hughes’ question inspired the two to co-found Sisters of the Skies — a non-profit organization offering support and encouragement to Black female pilots.

Similar to the unwelcoming statistics in Canada, less than one percent of airline pilots in the U.S. are Black females. And the numbers are just as low on the military side. Hughes herself is one of only five other Black female aviatrixes to ever serve in the USCG.

For Wordlaw, she was just 10 years old when she decided she was going to become a pilot, despite having never met or even seen a Black pilot.

“And for a 10-year-old Black girl in the late ‘80s, I didn’t think it was weird. But clearly, everybody else did,” she quipped.

“My mom was a teacher, and one of her co-workers asked her, ‘Why do you let Nia go around saying she’s going to be a pilot when you know they don’t let women fly?’” 

Wordlaw admitted that it was the support of her mother and access to a local library, where she could read books about aviation, that helped her find her confidence while honing her passion.

Fellowship, mentorship, scholarship

Since officially launching in 2018, Sisters of the Skies has grown to include over 130 Black female pilots, driven by the mantra: “Lift others as you climb.”

Wordlaw (left) with Angel Hughes in 2021. Photo courtesy of Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw

But financial barriers continue to be the most significant obstacle for young Black females who wish to become a pilot. So, Sisters of the Skies created a scholarship program to assist with the high costs of flight training.

Most of the organization’s scholarships are awarded during its annual scholarship fundraising gala. The first gala, held in 2019, was a tribute to the 10th anniversary of the first all-female African-American flight crew.

Sadly, the inaugural gala was followed with devastating news, as scholarship recipient Rashanda Nicole Lee passed away unexpectedly just weeks after receiving her award.

Sisters of the Skies has since introduced the Rashanda Nicole Lee Memorial Scholarship, “in honor of one of our sisters who has taken her final flight.” Each year, Lee’s family chooses the recipient of the scholarship and announces the award at the organization’s gala.

This year marked Sisters of the Skies’ fourth annual gala, where over $50,000 in flight training scholarships were awarded to aspiring Black female pilots.

“We’ve set some new mile markers that we are determined to accomplish, and we will not take ‘no’ for an answer,” said Wordlaw.

Representation Matters

Members and mentors with Sisters of the Skies have experienced first-hand that the most significant impact transpires when girls are mentored by women of color in aviation. In other words, representation matters. 

“[Our] Girls Rock Wings (GRoW) event is an annual outreach program where we expose girls, between the ages of 10 to 18, to the field of aviation.” 

During the annual event, girls are treated to a free flight with a certified flight instructor (CFI), a tour of an air traffic control tower, development of a flight plan, a flight in a simulator, and access to a static aircraft display.

Typical attendance is between 50 to 60 girls each year, with six Black female instructors and five airplanes.

“And we’re getting ready to have another one here in Houston [on May 7],” said Wordlaw. 

Holding pattern

Despite the organization’s hard work, the founders admit it often doesn’t feel like it’s enough. 

“We’re professional pilots, all volunteering, and we all have families,” said Wordlaw. “So my concern is, how do we stay organized and keep up with the demand because there’s not that many of us?”

Funding is the biggest hurdle for the non-profit. Future fundraising plans include publishing a book “about the organization and its members,” noted Wordlaw. Profits from sales would be used to support Sisters of the Skies’ scholarships. 

Members of Sisters of the Skies at the 2022 Scholarship Fundraising Gala. Terbo/Sisters of the Skies Photo

“If I was a great writer, I could just write the whole book myself… but I fly airplanes,” she joked.

Wordlaw also highlighted the Sisters of the Skies T-shirt that she proudly wears, adding that all proceeds from sales of the organization’s merchandise help fund the future for Black female aviators.  

When asked what’s on the horizon, the ambitious first officer shared her desire to pitch a docuseries to streaming services, such as Netflix, to shed light on the dismal statistics and ways to improve the numbers.

According to the non-profit, less than 150 Black female pilots in the U.S. currently hold airline transport pilot (ATP), commercial, military, and/or certified flight instructor (CFI) licenses.

While the Sisters of the Skies initiative receives a flood of attention during Black History Month and Women’s History Month, Wordlaw admits there’s a need to keep that momentum going all 12 months of the year.

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