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First woman to lead black aeronautics organization is now at the forefront

After a nearly 40-year aviation industry career, Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison now wants to help younger generation

In 1978, thanks to an informal diversity recruitment effort led by her mother, Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison was working as a flight attendant for Braniff International Airways. She was humbled by the opportunity the job presented and adored the travel perks. But after only three months, she knew in her gut that it wasn’t her calling.

“I remember one day looking at those first-class seats [on the airplane] and vowing that I was going to be [one of the successful people] sitting there one day,” recalled Blacknall-Jamison, 61, of Aurora, Colorado.

It’s safe to say she’s made good on that promise. She managed to take what she’d learned in that first job, combined it with her God-given talents — a potent mix of poise and precociousness — to launch a decorated 39-year career that has included recruiting pilots, training flight attendants and serving as a change agent for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) brass.

Her latest accomplishment, though, is historic. Blacknall-Jamison was recently named the first woman and first nonpilot to be chairperson of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP). The nonprofit organization was founded in Chicago in 1976 originally as the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, a professional organization focused on addressing the dire lack of diverse representation in the aviation industry. The name was changed (replacing “airline” with “aerospace” and “pilots” with “professionals”) about six years ago to reflect the organization’s objective to expand its reach to professionals of color working in all aspects of the aerospace industry — airplane mechanics, air traffic controllers, ramp agents, engineers, scientists and even astronauts.

“Historically, our organization has been led by knowledgeable and passionate African-American male pilots – until now,” said former OBAP board chairperson Albert Glenn, a Boeing 777 captain for FedEx Express and former director of flight operation for FedEx Express. “OBAP is committed to the future of aerospace, which includes diverse and expansive opportunities for all. Having this charge led by a female nonpilot demonstrates our organization’s commitment to our mission and to just how much we truly value diversity.”

The timing of her groundbreaking two-year appointment seems prophetic, coinciding directly with the anxiously awaited release of Hidden Figures, a feature film that chronicles the story of three pioneering African-American female mathematicians at NASA who helped famed astronaut John Glenn take his place in history in 1962 as the first American to orbit Earth.

Blacknall-Jamison, a married mother of two adult children, said she will be front and center in a movie theater seat with popcorn in hand when the film opens on Christmas Day in select cities and nationwide next month. She also plans to promote the film to OBAP’s 3,000-plus strong membership via its website. Girls enrolled in its Memphis, Tennessee-based Girls to Women aviation program will also receive complimentary tickets to the film “to ensure that this significant story of inspiration and Vanessa’s journey prove to be examples of what’s truly possible,” added Albert Glenn.

Its release, Blacknall-Jamison said, is an ideal springboard for her plans to further broaden OBAP’s ongoing efforts to provide professional development opportunities and support for aeronautics professionals of color and to recruit more women and girls, especially young people, into the industry.

“I think [the movie is] going to be a celebration and a reality check of where we [as both African-Americans in general and as African-American women in particular] were then and where we are now,” she said. “We have these lanes [we’re supposed to stay in] in life and we shouldn’t — you should be able to explore anything you want in life. I believe this movie is going to raise awareness about this amazing field.”

And it seems that work is greatly needed. In 1976, the 38 black male pilots who founded OBAP represented about half of all pilots of color worldwide. Today, some four decades later, African-Americans only comprise an estimated 2 to 3 percent of the 178,000 pilots working in the aviation and aerospace field.

“What did we know about the Tuskegee Airmen [while growing up]? Nothing. What did we know about black pilots [growing up]? Nothing,” said Blacknall-Jamison. “It all starts with education and that’s what I intend to do with this great opportunity before me. I honestly believe that I have an obligation to give back: We all hear about STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics], but we need to put STEM into action.”

OBAP has a long list of initiatives and programming aimed at increasing the number of “underrepresented minority professionals in the field,” through training, education and mentorship. The organization is best known for its annual professional conference and “career exposition,” along with Project Aerospace, its youth recruitment program that includes the signature Aviation Career Education (ACE) Academy. The summer program exposes students ages 14 to 18 to opportunities in aerospace and aviation.

“Our focus is cradle to career — cradle might seem a little young, but we firmly believe that you have to start early,” said Blacknall-Jamison of the ACE program that helped nearly 3,000 youths in 2016 through 28 academies in the U.S., including Puerto Rico and St. Croix. “So many kids don’t know all of the careers available to them. We want to expose them early and often to all of the wonderful opportunities available to them. We’re committed to preparing the workforce for the future of aerospace.”

Trying to put a dent in the industry’s long-standing diversity disparities undoubtedly will be tough, but Blacknall-Jamison’s extensive track record of success suggests that she has the expertise and experience necessary to do so. During her three-year stint as a flight attendant, she was promoted at the age of 24 to flight attendant supervisor and later did the same work for New York Air, Frontier Airlines and United Airlines. By 1985, United had tapped her to recruit pilots, a position she remained in for 24 years until the company eliminated her position in 2008.

Within six months, in January 2009, she was hired at the FAA as a leadership coach and change management adviser on the flight standards leadership development team. She currently leads the agency’s leadership development team.

Blacknall-Jamison has attracted supporters and admirers alike during her awe-inspiring professional ascent. She was recently honored at a private reception at Denver’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. A mix of family, friends, colleagues and community members, including Tony Jamison, her husband of more than 30 years, and mother M. Rae Taylor, nibbled on hors d’oeuvres and shared kind words about the woman they all consider an adopted hometown shero.

Black pilot Mical Bruce stood up and told attendees that he credits Blacknall-Jamison with launching his 26-year career with United. “She recruited me, took my name and resume and put me on the fast track to becoming a pilot,” Bruce said. “She is responsible for a couple hundred of us getting hired during her tenure: Vanessa is the linchpin for all of us. They couldn’t have picked a better person to lead this organization … I don’t think of her as [just] a trailblazer, I think of her as simply an outstanding individual.”

Longtime friend and Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sister Lia Nelson James echoed similar sentiments.

“There will be more women of color and children of color exposed to the aerospace industry because of Vanessa,” said James, of Aurora, who helped organize the event. “She gets it and she does it all so gracefully.”

Blacknall-Jamison, clearly touched by the support and love for her in the room, said she is committed to making her mark as OBAP’s new visionary. “I am confident that I can lead the organization to the next level,” she said. “I am humbled by the experience and the great opportunity before me. It’s all just a testament to the fact that, as a woman, we can do anything.”

OBAP has a rich history of nurturing the careers of many successful and accomplished female members, including Lt. Gen. Stayce Harris, the first African-American woman to serve as a lieutenant general for the U.S. Air Force; Aprille Ericsson-Jackson of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, recently named one of the “23 most powerful women engineers in the world” by Business Insider; Moriah Graham, a sophomore at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, who made history in 2015 by becoming one of the youngest African-American women to earn her pilot’s license.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield is a multiple-award-winning multimedia journalist whose work has appeared with NBCBLK, The Huffington Post, People, Essence, Ebony and on NPR. In 2016 she won five writing awards, including a Clarion Award from The Association for Women in Communications.