Attracting the Next Generation of Prepared Pilots through Personal Experience

Long before she became a captain, or had even flown on an airplane, Claudia Zapata-Cardone was no stranger to the airport. Almost every night growing up, Claudia and her mother would bring her father dinner during his shifts at the airport. During these drop-offs, Zapata-Cardone would watch the planes land and take off, imagining how “magical” the experience of flying must be. With her father’s help, she learned to identify the different types of aircrafts, their fuel capacities and how far they could travel. 

Even though Zapata-Cardone never saw pilots who looked like her — a Latina — she knew flying was her calling. Despite countless obstacles in pursuit of her dream, including a high school guidance counselor who dismissed her interest in aviation, she still wanted to learn to fly. Then, just months into her training, her flight school went out of business after the tragic events of September 11. As disappointments racked up, Zapata-Cardone admits the difficulties of becoming a pilot sometimes became too much to bear. “I felt that I would never achieve my dreams and almost gave up several times,” she said. 

Thanks to emotional and financial support from her parents and the guidance of the few female officers she met along the way were crucial, Zapata-Cardone worked her way — from crew scheduler to flight attendant to flight instructor to pilot.  

While her path was not straightforward, in 2015, nearly two decades after she began pursuing her goal, Zapata-Cardone was hired by United Airlines; she now serves as an Airbus 320 Captain. What especially moved her was how proud her parents, both Colombian immigrants, were of her.

 Zapata-Cardone recognizes that for others who are interested in aviation, the hurdles may prove to be discouraging and, ultimately, insurmountable. To prevent the industry from losing out on top talent, she wants to help the others from underrepresented communities — women, people of color and first-generation Americans — who share her same dream overcome potential barriers to entry while still ensuring they receive the necessary high-quality training. As a captain, along with executive director of community relations for the Latino Pilots Association (LPA) and proud member of Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Zapata-Cardone is working to promote these efforts to attract the next generation of pilots, and believes federal support is key. 

“I believe we can — and must — do more as a nation to open the doors of opportunity for those currently underrepresented in the piloting profession.”

Tags: ;