Carole Hopson always dreamed of what it would be like to soar in the sky.
She spent entire summers as a kid stretched out on the grass near Philadelphia International Airport watching the planes take off and land.
"My grandmother would spin a globe and we'd guess where the planes were coming from," Hopson, 56, tells PEOPLE. "The revelry and imagination of flying just stuck with me."
Decades would pass, however, before Hopson fully realized her dream. She attended the University of Virginia and Columbia University, where she studied Spanish and journalism, before pursuing a career in human resources. Hopson says she loved the work she did, "but it wasn't my heart's desire."
Her now-husband, Michael, surprised Hopson with flight lessons after one of their first dates — and in 2018, she began flying full-time as a pilot for United Airlines. The couple lives in Jersey City, New Jersey, with their two teenage sons so that Hopson can commute back and forth to Newark Liberty International Airport, a major hub for United. As a mother, Hopson admits she was at first hesitant to return to working full-time, but that her family has been "absolutely" supportive of her choice.
When Hopson joined United, she was one of two female pilots in a class of 40, and the only Black woman. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Black women make up less than one percent of all certified pilots.
That realization was a startling wake up call for Hopson, and empowered her to spark change within the aviation industry and diversify the cockpit.
"There's a huge opportunity gap," Hopson says.
She has teamed up with United Aviate and Sisters of the Skies, a non-profit organization that supports Black female pilots, to enroll 100 Black women in flight school by 2035.
United Airlines wants to reach a similar goal: earlier this week, the company announced the launch of its flight school, the United Aviate Academy, to train at least 5,000 pilots by 2030 — half of whom will be women and people of color.
In her free time, Hopson has also written a historical fiction book about Bessie Coleman, the first African American and Native American female pilot. The book, A Pair of Wings, is set to be published in June.
"In all my years of school, I never heard about Bessie Coleman or found her in a history book until I was an adult and one of my mentors gifted me a coffee cup with her photo on it," she says. "That needs to change."
Another thing that needs to change: the sexism Hopson says she often experiences at work.
"Even when I'm in my full pilot's uniform, passengers will ask me for a cup of coffee and confuse me for a flight attendant, as if that's the only job a woman can have on a plane," she says.
She gets plenty of stares, too — some people gawk, but others are amazed, like the mother and young daughter who pulled Hopson aside in the airport recently.
"She said, 'How does my daughter get to be like you?'" Hopson recalls. "It was a special moment."
The initiative, she adds, will hopefully allow other Black women to experience the thrill of being a pilot, and inspire more children of color to consider careers in aviation.
"Watching the sunrise above the clouds never gets old," she says. "That experience is one we should be exposing all women to."
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