Stephanie Johnson, 49, is a captain at Delta Air Lines.
When did you get started as a pilot?
The first time I flew in a plane is also the first time I flew one.
I’d convinced my high school physics teacher to take me and a few friends up in his plane. We flew in his Piper Cherokee out of Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland.
Once we were over Lake Erie, he actually let me take over for a few minutes. It was the thrill of my young life. By the time we landed, I knew I wanted to become a pilot.
How did you pursue that goal?
While I studied for my bachelor of science degree in Aerospace Technology at Kent State University, I joined the school R.O.T.C. program, thinking I would then enter the Air Force. But I soon realized the military was not a good fit for me.
After graduating from college in 1991, I was a flight instructor until 1993 when Burke Lakefront Airport hired me as an airport operations agent and flight instructor. After a stint flying part time for a charter company and my first commercial pilot job, I joined Northwest in 1997. In 2010, I started flying for Delta, after it had merged with Northwest.
You have been a commercial pilot for two decades — at Northwest Airlines and at Delta — and at both airlines, you have been the first African-American woman with the rank of captain. What kinds of reactions have you gotten from the people you meet?
I often get high-fives and “You go!” from some passengers. Several times, once I landed the plane, I got applause.
Earlier in my career, on the other hand, I had one flight training instructor who made it clear he was not in favor of me moving forward. Also, working for a regional carrier, one time an elderly woman saw me and was very reluctant to fly on our plane, but she boarded and had no complaints.
Eventually I hope that seeing an African-American woman pilot is as normal as seeing people of all genders and ethnic backgrounds as passengers on a plane.
Who were your predecessors and how do you help people in the next generation who also want to break glass ceilings?
First of all, I have to salute the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps. If not for those guys, I would not be a pilot. I am a member of its Cleveland chapter. Now, as the director of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals’ Aviation Career Education Academy in Cleveland, I get great pleasure encouraging young people to pursue their dream of flying.
As the mother of three teenagers with another Delta pilot as a husband, how do you manage to juggle work and life?
My husband, André L. Johnson, and I had a nanny who worked for us 12 years. We let her go when the kids grew up.
Now, we have a color-coded system of activity protocols to make sure everything and everyone is covered, just like we do at work. But if it doesn’t get put on the calendar, it’s not going to happen. Being on time counts too, just like at work. While I’m traveling, between flights I’ve done spelling tests with my kids on Skype.
What do you like about this career?
Just like when I was a kid, I marvel every time at the fact that I can make more than 100,000 pounds of materials fly — in my case, it’s the Airbus A321.
When we are leveled off cruising and just above the clouds, it still thrills me. You feel the speed of the aircraft because you’re passing stationary clouds at speeds of about 500 miles per hour. And when you make a nice landing, it feels great.