Life can be full of strange twists and turns.
Just ask Los Angeles native Veronica Harris, who a few years ago had an “epiphany” that radically changed her life. Four years ago, the ambitious Harris went from toiling as a payroll clerk to flying high as a certified commercial pilot.
As a payroll clerk for United Airlines several years ago, Harris eventually realized that she was bored with the job. “I loved the airlines, but being a payroll clerk was just not for me,” Harris recalled.
“Someone told me to read a book called The Aladdin Factor,” Harris recalls. “Six years ago, I bought the book and it was all about setting goals. One of the exercises in the book was to outline 101 things I would like to accomplish, no matter how outrageous.”
As she was writing goals on her wish list one day, Harris peered up at the sky and noticed an airplane flying overhead.
“I had never thought about flying before,” said Harris. On the spur of the moment, Harris jotted down what she thought was an impossible goal-to learn how to fly.
It wasn’t long before Harris’ high-flying dream began to take wings. “A few weeks later while I was driving in my car, I saw a plane flying low overhead, so I followed it,” said Harris, who at the time was living in Seattle, Washington. “The plane led me to a small flight school called Spanaflight. I asked the guy behind the counter, ‘How much does it cost to fly?’ The price was reasonable, so I signed on for an introductory flight.”
As a flight school co-pilot manned the small Cessna 152 and they soared above the clouds, Harris knew she had found her calling. “It was love at first flight,” said Harris. “I loved the freedom and challenge of flying.”
Harris attended the school for two years, juggling her job as a payroll clerk as she took flight lessons. “I would work from 2 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. at night as a payroll clerk, and then I would go home and go to bed. I’d rise at 5 a.m., get to the airport at 6 a.m. and go to flight school until 12 p.m. I kept it up for a couple of years,” said Harris.
But Harris said that the grueling schedule was worth it. “The flight instructors taught me how to take off, land, how to navigate the weather, and about aerodynamics. I also learned how to use my gyroscopic instruments, about vertical speed, and how to use my heading indicator, how to use a compass, and how to use flight controls.”
“I got my private pilot certificate, my instrument and commercial rating, and my multi-engine and flight instructor rating while at the school.”
But Harris didn’t stop there. Determined to earn her wings as a commercial airline pilot, Harris traveled to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and enrolled in another flight training school, The Gulf Stream Academy.
“The training was intense, because it was Federal Aviation Administration regulated,” said Harris, who said she was the first African American female who had ever trained at the school.
After graduating with her commercial pilot certificate, Harris’ dream to join the commercial pilot ranks became a reality in 2004. “After I left Gulf Stream Academy, Continental Express hired me. We fly Continental’s smaller jets,” said Harris, who pilots an Embraer EMB-145, a continental 50 passenger jet. She regularly flies passengers to Canada, Mexico, the Bahamas, and throughout the United States.
The airline pilot got an extra added bonus when she met the love of her life while flying for the airlines.
“I met my fiancé, Jason Brown, at Continental, who’s also a pilot,” said Harris. “We knew each other, but one day we ran into each other outside of work and the sparks flew.”
The two pilots are now planning a September 6 wedding. The wedding theme will include airplanes, of course.
As for being a commercial pilot, Harris said that it is not always smooth sailing. “There’s always challenges,” said Harris, who said that her home base is now Houston. She said her biggest challenge as a pilot is the weather. “We have to understand that there’s turbulence, if we are going to go into a headwind or a tailwind. We’re always looking at the weather and constantly making decisions, but we go through mental preparations in our minds,” she said.
Harris said that although the ranks of African American pilots has grown, it is still a rarity for most travelers to see an African American female pilot. “They are used to seeing old, white men,” Harris affirms, “but the response I get has been very favorable. I have people of all races come up to me who want to talk to me about flying or want to shake my hand.”
Harris said that female passengers are particularly proud, and that she often gets the “thumbs up” sign or words of encouragement. “They say things like, ‘You go, girl!’ or ‘Girl power!’” Harris says, nodding.
And Harris, who is currently headquartered near the NASA headquarters in Houston, is already dreaming of another goal: joining the astronaut program.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” Harris maintains. “Everyone looks at your age, race, and gender, but that’s never been a barrier for me. I realized that the only limitations are the ones we recognize.” Looking resolute, Harris adds, “I choose not to recognize any limitations.”

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.

Going with the flow
The evolution of the airline industry

By Gregg Reese
OW Contributor

In a by gone era, Americans embarking on a trip aboard an airline looked upon it as an event of great significance. The price of a plane ticket was astronomical compared to present day air travel. The experience carried with it an aura of glamour, with the stereotypical stewardesses (flight attendants) with their perfectly coiffered hair and tailored uniforms, along with the smiling faces that offered coffee and tea. People actually got dressed to get on an airplane, since it was still considered to be an “upper class” activity. For African Americans who could afford it, air travel presented the additional luxury of being unencumbered by the rigid constraints of the era as experienced by people traveling by bus or rail, since airlines did not have the legacy of racial restrictions on passengers.
The advent of technology meant that air travel has been made available to the masses while losing much of prestige and high-profile allure. So much for progress. Realistically, customer service has declined across the board over the years, most notably manifested by the demise of full service at gas stations. Along the way, air travel has transitioned from a special event for some to a mundane way of getting from point A to B with a minimum of fuss and little thought of in-flight opulence. This makes sense, as the novelty of flight has worn off and has come to be seen as merely another mode of transportation rather than a unique experience unto itself.
A pivotal point in the development of the industry came with the Deregulation Act of 1978 during the Carter Administration in 1978. Previously, destination routes and pricing had been determined by the government; since then it’s been pretty much consumer or market driven. International flights generally operate under intra-country agreements, though the European Union has reportedly had a liberal affect on travel within the region. In subsequent years, much of the industry struggled in this new business setting, resulting in the demise of several “marquee” names, among them Eastern, Pan Am, and TWA. Deregulation has also had the result of encouraging the privatization of air carriers (in terms of ownership), although nationally run liners are still in vogue throughout Asia. Paradoxically, the U.S. has filed charges with the World Trade Organization charging that the EU has unfairly given government subsidies to domestic airlines enabling them to buy newer, more fuel efficient airplanes, with the Europeans making counter accusations against the Yanks, especially after 9/11.
In the aftermath of deregulation most carriers experienced a period of stabilization and prosperity. They have developed via the “hub and spoke” distribution system in which traffic radiates out from a central “hub,” with the notable exception of Southwest Airlines the foremost of the low-cost carriers (as well as promoters of the “cattle call” open seating shuttles to Las Vegas and beyond). Built upon the concept of point-to-point transit, Southwest succeeded by focusing on destinations a few hundred miles apart that had been neglected by major carriers. More recently, they have profited by “hedging” fuel prices, purchasing large amounts of fuel well in advance on the assumption that oil prices will rise.
While travel at its most basic element is service driven, the technological component that accompanies flight necessitates large amounts of capital for start up and maintenance. These include the not inconsiderable expenditures for labor, promotions, excreta. In the case of air travel, additional finances are needed to keep pace with mechanical advancements, such as fuel economy, in order to remain profitable.
Individual planes in a given fleet need to be replaced and upgraded periodically for a company to remain competitive. Airplanes that are older generally cost more to maintain. This is one of the factors impacting the present market as a significant portion of American carriers fleet are years older then their European counterparts (average age of American Airliners are 15 years and Northwest at 18.5; as opposed to Air France’s 9.1 years, British Airways 11.3, and Lufthansa’s 7.8 years; according to www.airfleets.net/). All of this adds to a decrease in profitability due to the drop in fuel economy and increased likelihood of delayed or missed flights as a result of mechanical failures. While it has been mentioned, the issue of fuel still hasn’t been addressed head on.
As anyone even randomly glancing at the nightly news can attest, gas prices are in a constant state of escalation. News broadcasts regularly report human interest stories involving consumers at the gas fuel articulating their frustrations.
Lest anyone think this tale of the debit and credit columns is one dimensional, Frontier Airlines of Denver started Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings, largely because of its credit card processing company’s policy of holding the moneys paid for its advance ticket sales until the flights actually transpired, inhibiting Frontier’s cash flow. Airlines feeling the economic crunch have recently attempted to eliminate credit card companies altogether and keep the lucrative processing fees charged for ticket purchases for themselves.
Of course, there are a multitude of reasons behind the current airline crisis, but the foremost factor remains the skyrocketing price of oil. While this inescapable fact impacts the whole industry, smaller companies are especially hard hit. Aloha Airlines, ATA, Skybus, Champion Air and MAXjet have all fallen by the way side, with the rumor mill speculating that major carriers will go the way of consolidation, such as Delta and Northwest, which formally merged after posting combined loses of $10 billion this year.
With the exception of the Federal Aviation Administration, perhaps the principal organization encompassing the aviation industry is the Air Transport Association, which provides standardized technical specifications in addition to serving in a public relations capacity and to influence public policy. Since 2003, John Heimlich has served as its chief economist and vice president, was recently interviewed by Our Weekly.
Since the occurrence of the 9/11 attacks, the airline industry as a whole slowed down due to security concerns, while becoming much leaner and efficient as an entity (via computer automation) to compensate. The current gas crisis has highlighted continuing glitches such as antiquated air traffic control systems that contributes to energy waste via unnecessarily long and costly holding patterns over airports, resulting in delays, cancellations, and overall congestion.
Globally, the commonly accepted way of measuring a country’s overall national economy is its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, which is generally considered to be the total market value of its goods and services produced within its borders within a calendar year. Heimlich points out that much of the outside world’s GDPs are experiencing faster rates of growth than the U.S., coupled with individual currencies that are stronger as well. Air carriers native to these companies enjoy passenger routes that are by and large long haul and international in scope (80% of their total manifest, as opposed to perhaps 30% of those embarked on by American lines).
Our Pacific Rim neighbors especially, enjoy the benefits of a comparatively undeveloped market (compared to Europe and the Americas) with a newly emerging middle and upper class flush with disposable/discretionary income. Mainland China in particular has enormous potential in terms both cargo and passenger transport.
Heimlich argues that the United States is at the head of a consumer led recession in which individual purchasing power, the driving force behind the economy, is in decline due to smaller pay checks, collapsing real estate prices, as well as a falling stock market, the present situation may continue for the next year or two, abetted in part by governmental rigidity in terms of regulations.
Others suggest, in direct opposition to the precaution against excessive governmental interference, legislative assistance such as authorizing the government to release resources from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to leverage the average price per barrel. (The Strategic Petroleum Reserve is the Department of Energy’s emergency petroleum store at various locations in the Gulf of Mexico. Its current inventory may be viewed at anytime by accessing the government website, http://www.spr.doe.gov/). A visit to the ATA website at http://www.airlines.org/ reveals, among other recommendations, governmental encouragement to ease federal limitations on corporate restructuring so that individual companies can readily take advantage of opportunities to enhance efficiency and profitability.
The airline industry is distinguished by its vulnerability to economic and global influences, including the SARS scare of a few years ago, the original Gulf War, and so on, which explains why its history has been punctuated by fluctuating periods of prosperity intertwined by economic downturns and recovery. From this perspective, the current oil price issue might be viewed as another economic milestone to be overcome just as deregulation was decades ago. Possible remedies may include consolidation as seen with the Delta-Northwest merger, or reorganization within individual companies. Examples of belt tightening include the elimination of meals and other amenities.
Another recent development with an interesting twist has been the advent of the airline alliance, loose cooperatives of companies which provide the advantages of shared facilities and staff, and lower operational costs overall. Prime examples include Oneworld, formed in 1999 and including American Airlines, British Airways, and Quantas; SkyTeam consisting of Aeroméxico, Air France, Delta, and Korean Air; and Star Alliance comprised of Air Canada, Lufthansa, and United. Also in the works is a proposed consortium of eight Middle Eastern carriers to be called Arabesk. Whether this new conglomerate will have political implications beyond the realm of transportation remains to be seen.
Elizabeth Merida, Media Spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association contributed to the interview included in this article.