For the longest time, especially to minority communities, becoming a pilot has been been an out-of-reach career. Today, United's Aviate Academy is taking strides to change that, defining true accessibility for everyone and along the way addressing a pilot shortage holding all of aviation back.
When United Airlines announced the launch of its own aviation academy last year, the very first flight school to be initiated by a major U.S. airline, there was also a promise of opening new pathways, particularly for underrepresented groups of aspiring pilots.
Thirty-eight-year-old Ricki Foster is one of the few who made history as a member of the first class of the United Aviate Academy. Foster was born in Jamaica but was living with her family in Atlanta, Georgia, when she first entered the world of aviation as a flight attendant.
After a decade in that job, Foster rediscovered her passion as a pilot when a pilot co-worker suggested she consider the role and took her on a discovery flight. She was training at a local school in Georgia soon after when she heard about United’s Aviate — more importantly, its initiative to diversify the flight deck. When she did a bit of her own research, she was blown away.
“You mean, there’s an actual company, a big company, that is not afraid, that is not shying away, that is not backing down, that’s not just doing a one-hour seminar that’s voluntary about diversity and Inclusion. They’re actually pursuing this? To me, that was really attractive, and long overdue,” said Foster. “I pursued a path here because I felt like this is where I needed to be.”
United Airlines was faced with an enormous response from students across the country when it made the announcement to open a flight school committed to forwarding diversity and inclusion. What’s more, the need is growing for more pilots as a pilot shortage is hurting the entire industry right now.
“Through the academy, United Airlines hopes to continue to increase diversity in its flight decks and realistically represent the communities that airlines serve,” said Charles Hobart, a spokesman for United Airlines. “Our goal is to train about 5,000 pilots at the academy in the next 10 years. United intends to hire 10,000 pilots in the next 10 years, so we are hopeful that half of those pilots will be coming from the academy.”
For a long time, becoming a pilot seemed like a financial impossibility to many. According to United, simply completing private pilot training, which is only one step towards becoming a commercial pilot, could cost around $17,000. Earning a commercial pilot’s license could climb up to $100,000.
The United Aviate Academy hoped to take that burden off aviation students by leveraging long standing relationships with partnering organizations: scholarships sponsored by J.P. Morgan Chase, and student loans provided by Sallie Mae are notable financial stepping stools offered to future aviators. United also works with the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, Sisters of the Skies, Latino Pilots Association and Professional Asian Pilots Association to help identify and steer highly qualified and diverse candidates to the academy.
“We’re overwhelmed by the enthusiasm from folks who want to join the academy and those who are currently in it,” said Hobart. “It’s not an easy thing to train to become a pilot, but we’ve been extremely impressed by the first crop of students and the commitment that they have put into their studies.”
Recruiting From the Deepest Pool Possible
The academy’s first class, which began in December 2021, was comprised of 80 percent women or people of color, a hefty 30 percent higher than the number United committed to in their announcement last spring. There are currently 125 students in the academy, but the number has remained consistent despite the increased student body, with 78-79 percent still being people of color. The academy continues to bring new students onboard every month, and add classes to the school itself.
“Traditionally, pilots come from the military or a legacy connection. When you look at the history of commercial aviation in airline pilots, they tend to skewer towards a particular demographic, the white male. Our commitment to training is still about recruiting from the deepest pool possible from exceptional and qualified candidates,” said Hobart. “By looking elsewhere for talent while upholding our high standards, we know we’re gonna be an even stronger airline.”
Sure enough, Foster, a mother of two, was one of the prospective talents United discovered through their newly-framed search. Despite ten exciting years of flying day and night in commercial planes as a flight attendant, the idea of becoming a pilot never crossed Foster’s mind, at least up until a year ago.
She was immediately taken aback at the thought of being in the cockpit, just a few feet from where she normally sat at work, taking charge of the flight instead of monitoring it. But it didn’t take long for her to fall head over heels for piloting, and this new avenue got stuck “like a love bug in her brain.”
When Foster walked into her first class at the academy, composed of 30 students, she knew that she had come to the right place.
“My class looked like what they spoke about. We had men, women, gay, straight, Black, Hispanic, Asian, we had everybody,” said Foster. “The initial ‘Wow, we look like what they say.” was very fulfilling. And as we’ve continued to get more students, it’s the same thing. We have a bit of everyone on campus.”
The students range from 19-year-olds with no kids and no college experience, to people in their 40s looking to start their next career. Despite the range of experiences, they were all able to find commonalities between each other. As a mother herself, Foster was able to connect with other parents. As a Black woman, she bonded with other women who shared her initial passion and hesitance about becoming a pilot.
But while Foster was impressed by the academy once she joined her first class, she was aware of United’s prior commitment to racial diversity.
“I know that United has been diversifying their flight deck for a long time,” said Foster. “I don’t have specific numbers, but I’ve been in the industry for a while, and based on observation, most of the Black pilots I see are from United. So I could tell United had been working on it, but this new initiative is so commendable. I’m so proud to be a part of it.”
Aside from becoming a pilot, Foster has other dreams she wants to uphold — or rather, others’ dreams.
Foster regularly speaks to young, aspiring pilots who have concerns similar to hers when she was in their position. Most recently, she connected with a young Black girl who initially spoke with uncertainty but soon radiated excitement by the end of their conversation. Foster finds that children are the most rewarding to speak to.
“I have young parents ask me to talk to their kids. It’s satisfying because they’re the next generation,” said Foster. “I don’t want them to be like me and not ever think that they could be a pilot. That was for my generation. Going forward, I want every child, every minority, every Black boy and girl to know that they can be a pilot if they want to.”
So far, Foster has received her private pilot license, the first of the ratings she will be earning during her year-long program. Professionally, she hopes to continue to excel at the academy and cannot wait to get her first piloting job after a long training period. Personally, she is most looking forward to taking her mother, her biggest cheerleader and supporter, on a flight where Foster herself is the captain.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain a private pilot’s license.