First black United Airlines pilot overcame odds against him

- It sounds a little unbelievable but before William Norwood was hired, no other black person had ever been hired to fly airplanes for United Airlines. FOX 26 News caught up with United's first black pilot who is now 81 years old. 

“I remember right after I got hired, the vice president of the company told me I couldn’t afford to tie my shoes wrong,” says Norwood, as he explains that violation would have been grounds for firing.                        

Norwood says he simply applied for a job he thought he would love and ended up soaring, not only in his profession as pilot but also into history. 

“When I came on with United, United was hiring white male pilots with 175 hours on Cessna 172," adds Norwood. He had been in the Air Force for six years, flying B-52 Bombers and had more than 1,100 hours of flight time. However, even qualified black pilots couldn't get hired by commercial airlines until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A few months later in 1965, Norwood was hired by United, becoming the airline’s first black pilot.

”I studied hard and always tried to be twice as good as I needed to be,” explains Norwood.   

Speaking at a Black History celebration at Bush Intercontinental Airport, Norwood explains how the skies, or at least some people who worked in them, weren't always friendly. Twenty United Airlines captains threatened to quit when the commercial carrier considered hiring him. 

“They said if they hired me, and I’m sure they had a description for me that's not publishable, but they would quit," says Norwood.   

Turbulent times continued for Norwood with ugly names being hurled at him. 

“If you are a woman or if you are a minority, you have been called out of your name,” says Norwood. 

Ultimately, Norwood says most of his colleagues were amazing. He rose to become Captain Norwood and retired from United in 1996, after a 31-year career.  This history making pilot helped train countless others including Tahirah Lamont Brown, the first black female pilot at FedEx.  

Norwood looks forward to the day diversity is the norm.  He says if we compare our country to bedding, we are not a single-colored sheet but rather a beautiful quilt, all different kinds and colors coming together as one.

”We’re all Americans,” says Norwood with a smile.

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