Meet the Charlotte resident who became the first Black female pilot in the Navy

CHARLOTTE — She’s a rare bird who fell in love with flying from the first day she kissed the sky.

“I didn’t know that I could be a pilot until I was in college in flight training because it was never encouraged,” Brenda Robinson told Channel 9′s Ken Lemon.

Robinson made history in the air as the first Black female pilot in the Navy. She says it all started when she visited an air traffic control tower when she was 16.

“In a New York minute I knew that this was what I was going to do for the rest of my life,” she remembered, adding that she never thought she could actually fly for a living.

She said that in the 1970s, women, especially Black women, had almost no frame of reference for flying a plane.

Still, she went to an aeronautics college and got her pilot’s license. She thought it was over after that.

The Navy had a different plan. They called Robinson, recruiting her into a pilot’s program with spots for 10 women.

At that point, she realized she was going to be the first Black woman in history to go into the Navy. In her 13-year career with the Navy, she flew through oil field fires during the war in Iraq and landed on every aircraft carrier on the East Coast. She delivered people, mail and much-needed supplies to troops on the ground.

But she only realized how rare she was when she began flying commercial airlines.

Thirty years after she started her commercial career, Black women still only make up 0.5% of professional pilots, according to Sisters of the Skies, a group for Black female pilots.

She said in the 90s, fliers were baffled to learn she was a pilot and not a crewmember. She said when she greeted passengers disembarking a flight they often looked around her, searching for a man at the controls.

“They are confused. They look at me and say, are you a... flight attendant? And like you were getting ready to say it. You were getting ready to say pilot, but you say, that’s not possible,” she says.

She wrapped up her conversation with Lemon by recounting the friendship she made with another Black female pilot.

“She saw me and said, I can do this. Just seeing me, I can do this,” said Robinson.

Her legacy is being celebrated with a display inside the Sullenberger Aviation Museum in Charlotte. She hopes the display will inspire generations of young Black women. She wants them to know what she didn’t as a teen girl in a control tower.

Flying starts here, but dreams can take you so much higher.

Read more about Robinson and her legacy at the Aviation Camps of the Carolinas.

(WATCH: NC State student creates site map of Charlotte’s lost slavery history)