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.”