Above the clouds

Shirley Hawkins | 5/7/2008, 5 p.m.

Taking flight
Captain Billy Nolen soars the skies for American Airlines

By Shirley Hawkins
OW Staff Writer
It is a flight that American Airlines captain Billy Nolen, 50, will never forget.
"My co-pilot and I were flying from Chicago to Philadelphia and we had to fly through strong winds and thunderstorms. As we flew closer to the airport, you could see and hear thunder and lightning in the distance. Passengers could feel the plane shaking."
But Nolen wasn't perturbed. A veteran pilot with 19 years of flying experience under his belt, Nolen smoothly manned the controls and skillfully guided the plane to a bumpy, but safe landing.
"As we finally touched the runway the whole cabin broke into spontaneous clapping," Nolen recalls, chuckling.
Nolen, who flies domestically for American Airlines throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico, said that pursuing flying had been his passion ever since his teenage years.
Nolen is one of a small airborne fraternity--although there are 10,000 commercial pilots in the country, there are only 1,500 African American pilots currently flying in the United States.
Nolen, a native of Lynwood, California, recalls spending hours in the library poring over books on travel and aviation as a student at Lynwood High School. "I guess I had wanderlust at a young age," Nolen chuckled. "I always thought about adventure and going off to different places around the world."
Eager to pursue a career in aviation, Nolen joined the army right out of high school. "While I was based at Ft. Ord, in Monterey, California, I flew Huey helicopters in the army from 1979 to 1989 and then I graduated to flying airplanes."
During his military tenure, Nolen expanded his flight training by attending Embry Riddle Aeronautical University where he obtained a degree in aviation management.
Nolen set his sights on becoming a commercial pilot and applied at American Airlines in 1989. "American Airlines prides itself on having one of the toughest entrance exams of any airlines," said Nolen. "It was a rigorous process. They administered a stress test, a psychological evaluation, and then they conducted an extensive check of your family medical history. After that, they give you a mini-ride in a Boeing 707 flight simulator. Then you appear before a captain's board, where three retired captains talk to you for a couple of hours and ask you all different types of questions about flying."
Despite the rigorous screening process, Nolen passed the tests with flying colors and joined American Airlines as a flight engineer. "In 1990, I became a co-pilot and finally a captain in 1999."
As a captain, the highest-ranking commercial title in aviation, Nolen is responsible for ensuring that every flight goes smoothly. "The captain is in charge of the safety of the flight and the entire crew," Nolen pointed out. "That means you're responsible for every aspect of the flight from planning the flight to fuel requirements, to the weather, to ensuring that the aircraft is properly catered."
And Nolen's wanderlust has been more than satisfied--the pilot, who has logged more than 12,000 hours of airtime, said that flying has afforded him a window to the world. He has flown planes to Germany, France, England, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Canada.
Nolen said that with only a handful of African American commercial pilots in the industry, it is still rare to see someone of color manning the controls. "When I come on board, sometimes you see passengers peering into the cockpit. They are mildly surprised that there's a black captain," Nolen chuckled.
Nolen recalls sharing flying duties with another African American co-pilot. "Passengers were craning their necks doing double takes," Nolen chuckled.
The veteran pilot said that he is proud to be a captain for American Airlines, an organization that he says maintains the highest standards in aviation. "They train us every nine months," said Nolen, who said the training keeps his flying skills razor sharp. "We go through all kinds of emergency procedures and contingencies."
In an effort to increase the number of African Americans in the aviation industry, Nolen visits schools and colleges to talk to minority students about aviation careers. "Anything I can do to increase the exposure to the airline industry is something that I really like to do," said Nolen.
Nolen was recently offered another opportunity to reach the public about careers in aviation. "American Airlines has partnered with The Michael Baisden Radio Show in a continuing effort to reach out to the African American community. We'll be doing a monthly radio spot where we will highlight a business partner in the African American community. The segment is called 'Living Your Best Dream' and it will be broadcast throughout 2008."
A member of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, Nolen participates in programs to further promote careers in flying for African American youth. "We annually bring youth and teens to the OBAP Flight Academy, typically in June, and expose them to careers in the aviation industry," said Nolen, who said youth get an opportunity to man a flight simulator. Statistics indicate that careers in aviation fields can fetch $200 an hour.
When he is not crisscrossing the country, Nolen indulges in his hobby-listening to jazz. "I'm a big fan of Miles Davis and John Coltrane," he reveals. Nolen also enjoys spending time with his wife, Chong, and his sons, David, 28, and Billy Jr., 27.