Meet Four African Americans Making a Difference in Aviation

These inspirational leaders are carrying a legacy and passing it on to the next generation.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a month-long series celebrating Black History Month through aviation: Feb. 1: African American Pioneers in Flight and Space | Feb. 4: Legacy Flying Academy | Feb. 10: Why Aren’t There More Black Pilots in the Air Force? | Feb. 11: Jesse L. Brown | Feb. 15: Meet Four African Americans Making a Difference in Aviation | Feb. 18: From “Hidden Figures” to “Artemis” | Feb. 22: CMSAF Kaleth O. Wright | Feb. 25: Cal Poly Humboldt

Just as they have since aviation began, African Americans continue to make a difference in the industry. Many provide inspiration and become role models as they influence the future of the community that we all love so much. 

Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison

Chair, Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals Board of Advisors 

One of the most powerful ways to make a difference in this world is to become someone’s mentor. 

Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison [Courtesy: OBAP]

“Everyone can benefit from mentoring. Giving of yourself, your experience, and genuinely caring for others is the key to being a great mentorn” Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison says. 

She has more than four decades of experience in aviation, 28 in a managerial role. These days, she serves as change advisor and leadership coach (ACC) with the Federal Aviation Administration, Aviation Safety and Flight Standards Leadership Development Team Change Management Group. 

Her duties include change management consultation, guidance, training, and support focusing on the personnel management of national projects.

She eloquently shares what she knows, starting with advice for both the mentor and mentee.

For the mentor: “At the first meeting, establish expectations by asking why are you interested in being mentored? How do you think I can help you? Are you willing to put in the work? What is your desired outcome from our mentoring relationship?”

Ideally, she says, the mentee should come prepared with lots of questions—it is important to have the right fit between mentee and mentor.

It is also important that mentors ensure they do not over-commit themselves and that they have the time and capacity for mentoring, or else they will disappoint themselves and the mentee.

“If you agree to be a mentor, ensure you are committed, reliable, [and] eliminate distractions when meeting with your mentee. Provide them your undivided attention. Use your network to help your mentee succeed. And above all, believe your mentee can accomplish anything. However, if you see they are not committed or experiencing difficulty, be honest with them and tell them what you are seeing.”

Irene Geraldo

Pilot

One of the character traits of successful individuals is the ability to take the initiative to search for opportunities that allow them to expand and enhance their interests. Often that means finding a way to assist others in aviation.

One person with these character traits is Irene Geraldo, a flight instructor from Ghana, West Africa. 

Geraldo will be traveling to Nashville, Tennessee, in March to attend the Women in Aviation International Conference, courtesy of the It’s About Time Scholarship awarded by the Abingdon Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Abingdon Watch Co. 

Irene Geraldo [Courtesy: Women in Tech]

The foundation offers scholarships to people pursuing different industries in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) with the emphasis to change one life at a time by giving them insider access to an industry that they’re passionate about.

Geraldo has been enamored with aviation since childhood. She says her interest piqued when she saw airplanes flying overhead. Her first thought was to become an airline pilot, but when she started to take flying lessons and met other pilots, her ideas about a career in aviation began to evolve.

“In the long term, I see myself establishing a fully fledged facility aimed at rallying and training young people with interest in this field, while establishing a framework to provide proper career guidance in aviation,” she says. 

“I believe partaking in this year’s convention will go a long way in helping me develop more insight into the machinations of the industry; something I very much look forward to, to continue to carry out my mission to inspire and motivate the upcoming generation of young aviators back home in Africa and more, especially Ghana.”

Geraldo is looking forward to the conference as a way to take the first steps toward networking, as she knows aviation is not only about information application, it is also about building relationships.

“I am excited at the prospect of meeting the experts and industry players I so admire, face to face, to learn under the tutelage of other great women in aviation who are making significant strides in the industry and are paving the way for the younger generation such as myself and ultimately, to network and develop new professional relationships,” she says.

Dr. Mae C. Jemison 

Astronaut, educator, engineer

Dr. Mae Jemison has achieved many firsts in her career. She was the first African American woman astronaut and the first to travel to space.

Dr. Mae Jemison [Courtesy: NASA]

Jemison holds a degree in chemical engineering from Stanford University, as well as a medical doctorate from Cornell University.

She became a medical officer in the Peace Corps for Sierra Leone and Liberia, where she was an educator and conducted medical research.

In 1986, she was accepted to NASA’s astronaut training program. Her first mission was aboard space shuttle Endeavor in September 1992. She served as the science mission specialist, conducting a variety of experiments on herself and the crew. 

Shortly after returning to Earth, Jemison went to fictional space doing a cameo as a transporter operator on Star Trek, The Next Generation. Look for her in season 6 in the episode “Second Chances.”

After returning from space, she formed the Jemison Group to develop and market advanced technologies.

Titus Sanders

National ACE Academy director, Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals

Titus Sanders has been fascinated with aviation since childhood. As a boy, he used to draw pictures of fighter aircraft landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, and often watched an emergency medical services helicopter come and go from a nearby hospital.

Today, he holds certificates for both fixed wing and helicopter and serves as a chief warrant officer 4 in the U.S. Army. He began his professional aviation career as a pilot in the Army, flying rotary wings and working in U.S. Army intelligence.

Titus Sanders [Courtesy: OBAP]

“A few months after 9/11, I saw the movie Black Hawk Down. I felt so inspired by the heroics of the Nightstalker pilots,” Sanders explains. “The thought of becoming an Army pilot seemed so enticing and exciting. At that moment, I realized that I had to enlist to serve as a Black Hawk pilot.”

Sanders joined the U.S. Army in January 2003 as a paralegal specialist. He later attended Warrant Officer Candidate School and entered flight school in 2005.

“I have served most of my Army aviation career as an aviation mission survivability officer, responsible for training techniques, tactics, and procedures, employment of IR and radar warning systems, personnel recovery, and mission planning,” he says.

He achieved his dream of flying the Black Hawk along with several other aircraft. He currently flies the UC-35A, the military variant of the Cessna Citation V.

Sanders wanted to share his love of aviation with others. In 2012, a fellow U.S. Army pilot suggested he join the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), saying it would help him achieve his goal to grow and develop the next generation of African American pilots.

“He stated that OBAP was the best organization to help accomplish that goal,” Sanders says. He spent several years in OBAP, serving as a volunteer in the Aerospace Professional in Schools Program (APIS), which brings aerospace professionals into schools to introduce youth to the opportunities available in aerospace and aviation.

“Several times a year, I was afforded the opportunity to speak to students about my experience as a U.S. Army pilot and other careers in aviation.” Sanders says, adding that as his experience grew in OBAP, so did his responsibilities.

“Over the past few years, I’ve served in various leadership roles in the organization, including the Midwest regional director, co-director, and co-founder of OBAP’s newest program, Explore Aerospace, and the National ACE Academy director,” he says.

Sanders says the best part of the job is hearing from the students and their families on how OBAP and the programs have influenced their lives and helped them on the path to becoming aviation professionals.

“Our students are progressing by earning their pilot certificates, enrolling in aerospace engineering undergraduate programs, and serving as first officers and captains at various airlines,” he says. “It really makes me proud to be a part of an organization that is literally changing people’s lives in that way.”

The greatest challenge of the job, Sanders says, is that while OBAP has “…dozens of extremely passionate, dedicated volunteers, we always need more.” He adds that sometimes it can be challenging to recruit volunteers to help facilitate the programs. 

“It is also occasionally difficult making connections with various schools to connect with a broader audience of students. Our goal is to always reach more, do more, give more—so if you’re reading this and you feel inspired, I invite you to join us and volunteer. I guarantee the feeling you get when you see a student really fall in love with aerospace is more than its own reward.”

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