Aspiring pilots take part in United training program

HOUSTON – If you want to fly a commercial airline it takes thousands and thousands of hours of training, grit and determination, and for some, the ability to overcome obstacles.

Tahchiona Smith can’t help but smile when she’s flying.

“Being at the airport when I was younger watching the airplanes take off and land and from there it just skyrocketed,” Smith said.

Now she’s 20 and majoring in aviation science at Texas Southern University, a part of the United Summer Associates program, and dead set on becoming a pilot.

“Oh no matter what, this is it. This is, being a professional pilot is what I want to do,” Smith said.

“Typically our pilots that we’re hiring have 5,000 to 6,000 hours in an aircraft before we hire them here,” said first officer with United, Sarah Bull.

As a part of the two-month program, the first one ever held in Houston, students spent the day with Bull, learning about a pilot’s life. However, it’s not the only aspect of aviation they experience.

“They get to work in the summer and then once a week they go through a different area of operations and they get to see the different aspects of the airline and how they’re working,” Bull said.

“I got the opportunity to see the aviation industry in and out,” Smith said.

That includes how few pilots are females. For United, that’s about seven-percent of its pilot ranks. That number drops even further if you narrow it to African American women. In fact, Smith had never met one, until two weeks ago.

“When I got the chance to meet an African American female she told me the struggles that she faced through her career as well as mine.  When I met her, I was like, 'Wow, I really can do this, this is really amazing,'” Smith said.

“There is growing interest, and I think in the next 15 years you’re going to see more women in the aviation industry,” said Bull.

In two years, Smith will graduate from TSU and officially be a pilot however she then faces another big hurdle, landing that first job.