Behind Brenda Robinson’s name in history will be recorded a number of “firsts.” Perhaps most impressive is the fact that she was the first black female pilot in the Navy.
She grew up in North Wales, Pa., a half hour outside Philadelphia. Her father was an assembly worker at a truck manufacturing plant and her mother was a seamstress and school bus driver. At the age of nine, little Brenda became fascinated with flying.
“My goal was to become a flight attendant,” recalls Robinson, now 56 and a resident of Charlotte, N.C.
In high school she entered a career program that allowed her to spend half of each school day at an airport. The teenager decided she wanted to become an air traffic controller. One of the controllers suggested she apply to Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y. because it had a top notch aeronautics program.
She applied, got accepted and became the first black female in the school’s aero program.
“Once I started college, I learned that flying was offered in addition to my curriculum at a 10% discount to Dowling students,” Robinson said. “It was still very expensive and when I ran out of money, I had to stop flying, raise money and start up again.”
One of her flight instructors was the first woman pilot she had ever seen. It was during those flight lessons Robinson said, “When flying became my life.”
She earned her pilot’s license while still a college student.
She became the first black female to ever graduate from Dowling with a degree in aeronautics. But just before graduation, she realized she didn’t know what her next step would be.
“I was about to graduate from college with a pilot’s license and was not qualified to do anything,” she said. “I was sitting around feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t know where I was going and someone knocked on the door.”
The head of the aeronautics department had sent a student to fetch her to meet recruiters from the military. Robinson hadn’t thought about the military at all. She listened to recruiters that day and chose the Navy because she was told if she got through Aviation Officer Candidate School she could go to pilot’s school.
“Out of all the women on the planet, they only took 10 women a year,” said Robinson.
There were three women in her class. A recruiter told her she’d be the first black woman to enter the program. Robinson wasn’t impressed with making history.
“I was impressed with an opportunity to be a pilot,” she said.
She was not welcomed by most of her male classmates.
“I am not a person who understands being hated on sight,” she said. “I think you need a reason to hate me. They pretty much treated me like I had to prove to them I was really, really smart. But I was an average person. They wanted me to prove I was even better, bigger and smarter than them.”
Robinson just wanted to do her best for herself, for her own fulfillment. She wasn’t out to prove anything.
“There was no one to whine to but my parents, who told me I had an option: If I wanted to quit and come home, it was all right with them. However, if I really wanted to fly for a living, it was up to me to give it all I could. So I stayed.”
She stayed and performed at levels she had never imagined.
Candidates were also expected to be involved in extracurricular activities, so Robison gravitated toward the band since she had been in her high school’s marching band. She wound up being the school’s first female drum major.
By the end of training, she had made some very good friends. The program proved difficult for everyone. Out of 32 candidates, 18 graduated, including all three of the women recruits.
Her Naval career spanned 13 years and included stints in Norfolk, where she landed her planes on aircraft carriers; in Guam and Pensacola, Fla., where she was as a flight instructor and in Washington, D.C., where she flew VIP flights from Andrews AFB, taking admirals, generals and members of Congress to their destinations. She flew troops and cargo during the Gulf War. She left the Navy as a lieutenant commander, LCDR Brenda Robinson, receiving an honorable discharge in 1991.
She applied to become a pilot at commercial airlines and was hired by American Airlines in 1992. This time she was the second black female pilot, but the first was no longer working there, so she was the only black female pilot for about nine years, she said. At the time, women pilots were a minute percent of the total number of pilots, anyway.
“Whenever we land, the pilot comes to stand and say goodbye to passengers. When I stood there I often saw passengers trying to look around me to thank the pilot,” said Robinson, laughing.
She left American in 2008, after flying for 17 years, leaving the sky after a total of 34 years as a career pilot. But she was still at American when another challenge popped up. Shortly after being hired, she found out she had breast cancer. She had had breast cancer 11 years earlier and had gotten a lumpectomy and gone through radiation treatment while maintaining a full flight schedule. Now in 2003, the doctor found more lumps. This time she had a double mastectomy and received chemotherapy.
“Double mastectomy? I said fine, if this is what you need to do,” said Robinson. “My mother died of cancer because it wasn’t detected and it was too late to do anything when it was.”
For Robinson, the health ordeal meant she was away from her airlines job for a year and a half, one year for treatment and six months because the Federal Aviation Administration required she be free of medication for that period. She returned to work in 2004.
“One thing I remember is in the Navy when I was going through basic training they would tell you things that in your brain seemed so hard or impossible to accomplish. The drill instructor would say you are going to run 15 miles carrying a rifle or jump in the pool and tread water for a minute and not use your arms to keep yourself afloat. Or tread water for an hour and swim several miles in your clothes. You might think you can’t do it. But I decided there was no use in whining. Let’s just do this.”
This belief that you can do whatever it takes carried her through the dark days of cancer, when she saw for the first time that she had spent most of her life working and achieving.
When I was sitting there sick from chemotherapy, I started to appreciate that there was actually a world, a life I had missed,” she said. “My father was getting older and the opportunity to spend quality time with him was slipping away while I was flying and commuting nonstop.”
She didn’t leave the skies immediately, but she remembered the peace of being still. She prepared, investing her money, buying and selling several properties and getting her real estate license. So when being a pilot became more stressful than enjoyable, she retired, making yet another move on her own terms, on to the next step without hesitation.
”I said there’s something else I’d love to do instead,” said Robinson. And she went on a cruise with her dad.