As industry groups and pilots alike work to improve diversity throughout aviation, we will continue to see more monumental firsts. In 2020 Lt. j.g. Madeline Swegle became the U.S. Navy’s first Black female tactical aircraft pilot, following in the footsteps of the first Black female naval aviator, Brenda E. Robinson.
While Swegle and Robinson serve as great examples for potential paths that women of color should feel empowered to pursue, Morgan Johnson is blazing her own trail. Johnson was the first woman to earn her private pilot certificate through the historic Red Tail Scholarship Foundation and is leading the way for other women like her.
Johnson has her sights set on earning her instrument rating with the ultimate goal of becoming a corporate pilot. Johnson also feels it’s important to continue inspiring others to pursue their aviation dreams and will be able to continue doing that through her work with the foundation.
AOPA asked Johnson about how she became a pilot, and what she plans to do next.
How did you first become interested in aviation?
I’ve always been a free spirit. Luckily, I had a close friend who was a scholar in the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation. During his instrument training he was time building cross-country hours and invited me on some pretty cool trips. We flew to Atlanta, New Orleans, and he even flew to me in Ohio for my graduation party. I was enticed by the adventure aspect of flying and having the ability to travel leisurely. My friend referred me to the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation and I eventually became the first female private pilot in the program.
What do you hope to accomplish in aviation?
Statistics show that less than 2 percent of the aviation industry is composed of African Americans and even less are African American women. While it’s important to me to get my ratings and have a prosperous career in aviation, it's much more important to me that Black girls see me representing them in the aviation industry. Growing up, I only really saw Black women with careers at desk jobs. And while there's nothing wrong with those careers, it just always seemed like you had to fit into a certain box to have those types of jobs. I always tell people I’m a regular Black girl from the city. I’m eccentric, I have a lot of personality, I’m really a nonconformist. I feel like flying as a woman, especially as a Black woman, is an opportunity to live outside the box of what Black women were taught they are capable of doing. My goal is just to inspire other Black women that anything is possible, regardless of your background.
What was your biggest fear when first getting started in aviation?
My friend was my first CFI by the time I started my training. I’ve always been the type of person who can pretty much pick up anything and easily just adapt into being good at it. But it was obvious when I started my training that this wasn't something that would come naturally to me. Flying with someone who knew me and saw me struggling was really a huge hit to my pride and was extremely discouraging. But, I stayed consistent. Once I got over that hurdle, I struggled with the idea of being one of the only females often at the airport. I believe I am brave, daring, and confident, but flying truly humbled me. I think constantly comparing myself was holding me back, as well as my fear of failure.
What led you to pursue your education at Tuskegee University?
I was granted a merit-based scholarship to attend Tuskegee. What's crazy is that I’m a seamstress and I’ve always had a strong desire to be a clothing designer. I knew I wanted to attend a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). Therefore, I was set on attending Howard University, which is known as a fashion HBCU mecca. I applied to the top five current HBCUs at the time and received scholarships to all of them except Howard. Looking back, I know I wouldn’t have been introduced to aviation if I hadn’t attended Tuskegee University. Tuskegee has such a rich history and tradition. I now get to train to fly at the home of the Tuskegee Airmen. True American war heroes. I believe that the universe redirected me for something bigger.
What was your major and what are your post-graduation plans?
I graduated from Tuskegee University in Spring of 2019. I majored in Business Sales and Marketing. I’ve owned my own ready-to-wear women's clothing line since 2015. Since graduation, I’ve relaunched that same clothing brand, Era Air (IG @eraemporium), and redirected the overall theme of the brand. It’s now an aviation inspired, unisex clothing line, that focuses on subtly intertwining street fashion and aviation. I’m currently working on my instrument training and building my brand. I’m planning to launch a video blog that showcases my work as a female pilot and small business owner.
What are your thoughts on diversity in aviation?
I know of so many people of color who are interested in a career in aviation, but the training costs are so immense, it’s almost impossible for them to even get the opportunity to sit in the cockpit for one lesson. That is why programs like the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation are so important. To create a space for more people of color to fly, people have to donate, and spread the message that we truly need more help to make it happen. It’s possible, but there must be people willing to change the dynamic in order to enhance the opportunities available. I’m determined to make sure that that happens in my lifetime.
How do you hope to inspire others like you to pursue their aviation dreams?
I really hope that I inspire others simply by just being myself. It’s important to be diligent, hardworking, and professional. But it’s also very important that you be yourself. I was scared of losing who I was in an industry where Black women aren’t really that well represented. But, I did a lot of soul searching to make sure that I stayed true to myself, my culture, and what I represent. I hope that regardless of whether or not I inspire others to become pilots, seamstresses, that all the while people continue to be themselves throughout the process. As long as you put the work in and carry yourself with professionalism, you should be able to fit into any career field, no matter the lack of diversity.
What was it like to be the first woman to earn her pilot certificate through the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation?
I really didn't realize that I was going to be the first female private pilot in the program until my checkride was scheduled. There were a few other females who started the program before me, and I was really inspired by them. As I got closer to my checkride, I became nervous and overwhelmed when I realized I was to be the first female private pilot that the program trained. We now have three female private pilot checkrides scheduled in the next few months. The more the merrier! I can’t wait until my female counterparts join me with my instrument rating.