At CommuteAir, we have great people with great stories to share.
As a regional airline and United Express partner, we play an important role in connecting people and communities to the world via United Airlines’ global network, but we’re also a critical step in the careers of those working in the airline industry. Our “Featured Crew” series tells the individual stories of standout members of our team whose hard work makes our organization unique.
In honor of Black History Month, we’re taking this opportunity to share a story from one of the standout members of our diverse team: First Officer Shelley Thomas! Her successful career in aviation started by taking her all over the world as an international Flight Attendant, and today she’s the one flying our passengers to their next destination as a First Officer!
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your career.
Currently, I’m flying as a First Officer, but I have also been a Flight Attendant in the United network for 9 years. I flew primarily international long-haul flights with larger crews that have multiple Flight Attendants and served as the “Purser” (aviation term which means lead Flight Attendant) during that time. I’ve also worked as a Flight Instructor at local airports and at the United Aviate Academy.
What was it that first got you interested in aviation?
It’s a bit of a family affair! I wanted to be a Flight Attendant my entire childhood. My mom and Aunt were both career Flight Attendants: My mom flew for American Airlines and my Aunt flew for United Airlines, and both of them served a lifelong career. They both just retired in the past year! Pretty cool to see their 40-year careers pan out. After college, I applied for both United and American and, I didn’t get an offer on the American side…my mom was devastated but my Aunt was overjoyed so I couldn’t lose!
What inspired you to make a change to become a pilot?
There’s an expression out there that says, “Flight Attendants don’t retire,” one day you just die…you can’t stop being a Flight Attendant! I was happy being a Flight Attendant, but on one flight to Zurich, we ran into a mechanical issue after landing and had to take the aircraft back home without any passengers. Since the jet was empty, the Captain of the flight spent the entire eight-hour flight talking to the Flight Attendants about how they could become pilots. I thought to myself, “I’m too old (27), I don’t have any money, and I’m not in the military…I can’t become a pilot!” I thought I knew what it was to become a pilot and felt that nothing in my life fit that idea. But then he told me that both his wife and daughter were civilian pilots who had accomplished flight school on their own, and that got my attention.
We were both living near the Washington DC area then, and he told me about a local airport where I could have a discovery flight. He laid out the steps, and within a week, I had taken my discovery flight and decided to become a pilot! After that, I started taking crazy trips as a Flight Attendant to save some money and get myself started in flight school.
Is there a moment that influenced your career?
During my international trips, while I was working to put myself through flight school, I was working a trip to Rome and ended up flying with the first Black female pilot I’d ever seen in my life: Theresa Claiborne. She was so energetic, and I could not wait for my chance to speak to her! When you land in Rome, there’s a bus ride that takes two hours to get to the hotel in horrible traffic – but Theresa sat with me the entire time! I told her I was working on my private pilot’s license, and she sat there and helped me lay out my vision for the future.
I felt so energized. To have an aviation icon help me along the way was awesome!
I got a loan, moved to Texas to finish my certification, and began instructing at David Wayne Hooks airport. They were amazing – I lived in a cool kind of “hangar apartment” right by the airport – you could see inside the hangar from my window. It was a dream. Then, the United Aviate Academy opened and it’s all history from there! I’m currently flying as a First Officer at CommuteAir and building my 121 hours until my Aviate date arrives and I can move on to mainline.
What advice would you give to future aviators of color?
Find support within the industry early – Never listen to the little voice inside your head that says, “You don’t belong here!”
I’m affiliated with an organization called ‘Sisters of the Skies,’ a nonprofit dedicated to empowering female aviators of color. They’re an amazing group I wish I had found earlier in my career. Being part of this huge network of black women supporting each other’s representation reminds me that my path is a viable option. At times, being the only black female you can see in the vicinity can be challenging and make you feel isolated.
There were times in flight school when a question was asked that I couldn’t answer or answer as fast as the other students, and a voice would just pop into my head, “Wow, they all answered that question fast and, I don’t get it because I’m stupid and shouldn’t be here.” Don’t listen to that voice! Know that you are just as smart, capable, and talented as everyone else in the classroom!