For nearly the first two decades of Tunisia Solomon’s ’18, life, flying was not on her radar. The Applied Mathematics major and Economics minor, who graduated summa cum laude from Farmingdale State College as the valedictorian of the Winter 2018 class, balanced a near-overflowing plateful of activities, including running a math tutoring business and playing the steel pan in her family’s band.
Then her plate got even more full. In August 2016, before Solomon’s sophomore year, a friend majoring in Aeronautical Science with a private pilot’s license offered to take Solomon on a short flight with him. He even gave her the controls.
“I got my first look at what it meant to be a pilot,” the Amityville native said. “(From the sky), I saw my house and I saw the College.”
And she was hooked.
After years of struggling to support herself and pay for flight training, Solomon finally can see the light at the end of the runway. She received a $100,000 scholarship to attend the United Aviate Academy in Arizona, run by United Airlines, to train pilots and diversify the aviation ranks. Currently, 70 percent of the pilots in training at Aviate are women and/or people of color.
When Solomon completes the program, she’ll be a fully-certified Black woman pilot in an industry that is still primarily white and male. Nationally, women comprise 8 percent of pilots and Blacks 1.6 percent. Fewer than 1 percent of pilots are Black women.
“I’m honored to be a part of this industry,” said Solomon. “I have a responsibility to do my best, and be the best I can be so that the door will be open for other women and people of color. I know I’m qualified and extremely knowledgeable. I have to be the best I can be.”
She writes about her journey on her Instagram page @TheBossPilot. “As an influencer, the purpose of sharing my life experience is to inspire, educate, impact, and connect.”
When reflecting on how few women are in the aviation industry, Solomon said she thinks about all of the untapped talent: “(I think of) young girls and women who could have been blessed with the incredible opportunity of flight. Being a pilot is extremely rewarding.”
Among her goals: Becoming a commercial airline pilot and opening a flight school so “People can see my face and know what is possible; I want to give people the knowledge to do something like this,” said Solomon. Growing up, the aviation industry did not provide her with role models. “I didn’t see anyone who looked like me doing it.”
Girls and young women need to see more female aviators enjoying their jobs and careers. “I just volunteered for The Gift of Flight, where a diverse group of 50 high school students came and met us at our flight school. They saw my pilot friends and me smiling and passionate about our flight training.”
Remembering the female trail-blazers in the industry is also critical during Women’s History Month and all year. “Storytelling is everything,” said Solomon. “It is crucial to remember the brave, pioneering, and fearless woman who came before us, paving the way for us to live out their wildest dreams.”
Solomon enrolled in United Aviate Academy’s second class, which started in January 2022. Of the 29 students in the class with varying levels of flying experience, 15 were women. Over the course of a year, about seven students dropped out, Solomon said.
“It’s tough,” she said of the expense and the training. If she had not received the scholarship, Solomon said she would have borrowed money to attend the school, which would have made the experience more stressful.
United is the only commercial airline to open its own flight school. The industry has a severe shortage of pilots, exacerbated by the pandemic. Airlines offered early retirement packages to many senior pilots and laid off others when planes were grounded for months due to COVID-19. Fewer pilots are also transitioning from the military to the airline industry. Oliver Wyman, a management consulting firm, estimated the industry is short about 8,000 pilots, representing 11 percent of the total workforce, and says the deficit could reach 30,000 pilots by 2025. Pilot demographics have also remained unchanged for decades; about 92 percent of pilots are male.
The amount of money and time needed to become a commercial airline pilot also is prohibitive; training can cost between $52,500 and $70,000 and take as long as six years.
Besides the flight training, Solomon is reveling in finding kindred spirits. “I have enjoyed meeting people similar to me, who are very driven, excited to be here, and open-minded,” she said. “I see them, talk to them, and fly with them, including people from other countries. Every flight, I try to challenge myself.”
Advancing her aviation career is a challenge Solomon has focused on for years. During her remaining time at FSC, Solomon did whatever she could to get in the air. She rode in the backseat during her friend’s flying lessons and tagged along when he was assigned to refuel airplanes. One summer, Solomon was selected for a prestigious internship at Brookhaven National Laboratory, earning $5,000, and $3,000 of it went to flight training at Republic Airport.
She also finally found role models; Solomon met members of the New York Metropolitan chapter of the Black Pilots of America at Republic, and they invited her to their meetings. “I saw so many Black pilots, including two females,” she said. One became her mentor, and she took ground classes with the group. “A good number of them are aircraft owners as well, and they look like me,” she said, recalling the excitement of meeting other Black aviators. “They fly planes and own planes.” She also learned about a group for female aviators.
In 2021 she moved with her family to South Carolina, where she continued a math tutoring business she started in college, performed music, and regularly drove an hour each way for flight lessons.
One of her proudest moments was on Oct. 10, 2021, when she completed her solo flight while her parents were watching. “It was amazing.” Solomon modified the rituals for pilots who soloed successfully; traditionally, the shirt tails of new pilots were cut off because, in days past, instructors would tug on a pilot’s shirt tails to get their attention while flying, and upon landing, the new pilot is doused with water. Solomon liked the shirt she was wearing, so her father brought another one for the alterations, and the dousing was scrubbed. “I just did my hair; no one was throwing water on me.”
In another milestone, Solomon recently earned her commercial pilot’s license, which means she can be paid to transport people and goods. She is on course to earn her certification to fly commercial passenger jets.
She credited her parents for helping her understand the value of hard work, how to advocate for herself, and how to follow her dreams. She also drew inspiration from the Black Pilots of America and the women’s pilot group.
Through Solomon Tutoring, an e-learning company she founded, Solomon is also publicizing aviation and career programs for females, such as Girls LAUNCH, which is sponsored by the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and Dreams2Careers. “I emailed the program information to more than 200 students and parents,” she added.
Increasing the visibility of women and minorities in aviation and publicizing information about the industry to young people could help diversify the pilot ranks, Solomon added. “It’s about showing our faces and seeing people who look like you and letting them know they have that support,” she said. “You don’t have to be born into a rich family, you don’t have to be a STEM wiz. We need to let them know the steps and what is involved in going through the program.”
Making training more affordable also would draw more candidates. “There is still a big gap as to who can have access to this type of program,” Solomon said. “If the funding was there, that would be paramount. The talent is out there. If money were there, and airlines sought them (minorities and women) out, we could change the face of aviation and make it more inclusive.”
Young women interested in aviation should pursue their goals and embrace every opportunity that comes their way. “I would tell them not to let fear hold them back,” Solomon said. “Chase your dreams fearlessly. Seek out knowledge; don’t wait for opportunities to pop into your lap; seek out information. And be kind to people, you never know when someone can be the door-opener for you. They can advocate for you when an opportunity arises.”
When thinking about Women’s History Month and her own professional and personal journey, Solomon said she reflects on all the firsts: the first woman ever to receive a pilot’s license in the world, Raymonde de Laroche in 1910; the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license, Bessie Coleman in 1921 in France, because no U.S. flight schools would accept her. “I think about living legends like Theresa Claiborne, a captain at United Airlines and board advisor for Sisters of the Skies (SOS) who checks on my aviation journey progress and the first Black female Delta captain Stephanie Johnson who I met at the fifth annual SOS gala who was sharing her story and advice with me to keep going and doing what I love.
“I think about how my grandmother came from Guyana with dreams of a better life for her nine children. She worked cleaning homes to raise enough funds to buy airplane tickets for her children, so they had a chance at their dreams and goals.
“I think about my mom who woke up at 6 a.m. every day to commute by train to work in Brooklyn at the MTA Transit Museum for more than 31 years to give my two brothers and me a solid education.”