A small percentage of Black women are pilots within the aviation industry in the United States. However, one aviator is looking to make history and become the first Black woman to fly solo around the world.
Leona Serao, 23, currently lives in New York City and will begin her three-month journey around the world in early August. Yahoo News reported that the young aviator plans to travel to 33 countries in four continents before she returns home.
“The fact that I’m going to be the first one means I’m going to be able to inspire other Black and other African people who want to join the aviation field,” she told the outlet.
Earthrounders, a site that tracks aviation accomplishments, reported that there have been 142 known solo flights around the globe to date. Only 11 pilots were women, but none of them were Black, according to Yahoo News.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 158,000 licensed pilots in the United States. Black aviators account for 2.6% of the pilots, which is about 4,100 working in the industry. Of that number, only around 150 of them are Black women, per Yahoo News.
The 23-year-old was born in the U.S. and raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the second-largest country in Africa, where only three women are licensed pilots.
For Serao, breaking racial barriers in the aviation industry could inspire other young Black women to follow in her footsteps.
“It is a challenge because it’s a male-dominated field and women didn’t really get the opportunity to be pilots before,” she said. “We couldn’t even drive before [the 20th century]. And in the aviation industry, it stayed like that.”
Serao faced several challenges after returning to the states from college seven years ago. She said adjusting after returning to the U.S. was difficult for her. The 23-year-old remained focused on her future and spent at least $70,000 on six months’ worth of aviation courses in flight school.
She later became a licensed pilot at the end of 2020, with her father, a former pilot, being her biggest inspiration. Recently, she launched an online campaign for those who would like to donate money toward her food, fuel and lodging costs during her three-month trip.
Serao isn’t the first Black person to make history in the aviation field. Jamaican-born American pilot Barrington Irving was the first Black person to fly around the world solo in 2007. He was also 23 years old when he completed the task.
Today, Irving is surprised at how he accomplished the journey after leaving Miami 16 years ago with only $30 in his pocket. He was not able to swim and did not have a life vest, per Yahoo News, but he said he knew he wanted to succeed in his chosen career path.
“I’ll never forget major media outlets interviewing me, a couple thousand people at the airport cheering, ‘Go Barrington, go!’ and I only had three $10 bills,” he told Yahoo News. “But folks were so inspired. This was before crowdfunding was a big thing. … I just told myself, ‘I need to get from point A to point B and see how far it could go.’”
Years after returning from his trip, he launched an aviation school to help the next generation of pilots. He also mentored a few young people who have flown around the globe, and he said he hopes Serao will inspire others to do the same.
“There is 100% a void of young women seeing other young women who look like them in the field of aviation that they can aspire to,” Irving said. “She will have the attention of so many women, not just Black girls, but so many women, to inspire them. And there’s nothing like being the first.”