Photo/Courtesy of Makeda Dawson
St. John native Makeda Dawson dreamt of becoming a pilot for as long as she can remember. Now she is the first and youngest female St. Johnian to hold a commercial pilot license. Although her journey hasn’t been smooth, her passion for flying and her courage to push beyond her limits keep her going.
Makeda Dawson took her first flight with her grandmother to Virginia for her aunt’s college graduation ceremony. “I remember being in the airport, going on the plane and just being in the air, that was the coolest thing ever to me,” she said. She would go on many more trips with her grandmother, which stoked a passion for flying.
As early as the eighth grade, Makeda began researching what it would take to claim her seat in the cockpit one day. She looked up a pilot’s salary, and the best schools to attend and stumbled upon Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, “the Harvard of the skies,” as she described it.
In high school, she laid out a plan and followed it to a T to ensure she would get accepted into Embry-Riddle University. “I chose the subjects I needed to study to qualify to get into Embry-Riddle,” Makeda noted. And it paid off. After graduating from high school in 2015, Makeda left the U.S. Virgin Islands to pursue her degree in aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle.
“The first day I was behind the controls was actually my first day of school. They took us on a discovery flight, and I remember being so amazed because the instructor gave me the controls and said, “you fly,” she recounts.
A Balancing Act
Makeda enjoyed flying, but life as an aeronautical science student wasn’t always easy. Juggling her college courses with flight training was easier said than done. Doing both was financially and emotionally stressful for Makeda.
“I had to study for classes and study for flying at the same time, so it was a lot, she said. I always remember just being worried about how I’m going to pay for this."
Nonetheless, with the support of her parents, she earned her private pilot certificate after a year and a half. This license allows Makeda to fly friends and family in a single-engine airplane, like the Cessna 172.
After getting her pilot license, Makeda got a certificate in Instrument Rating (IR). The IR rating is an excellent complement to a pilot certificate. In this intensive training, pilots learn how to fly in inclement weather. The license also expands the territory in which a pilot can safely operate.
Makeda’s next goal was to get her commercial pilot license which would allow her to get paid to fly. Along the way, she ran into financial hardship, and although she had completed all her class requirements, she could not graduate. She had to finish flight training in the allotted time to get her degree.
At the time, the 25-year-old pilot could not rely on her parents. They were dealing with financial challenges due to the after effects of Hurricane Irma in 2017, which devasted the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Hard work and determination pay off
Makeda worked as a retail store clerk in Orlando, hoping to save enough to go back to flight school. She did an internship with Proctor and Gamble and Delta Airlines flight operations during that time. As part of the Delta Airlines internship program, Makeda accompanied Delta pilots on their flights and got a behind-the-scenes view of the company’s flight operations, working alongside Delta’s operations managers. However, nearly three months into her internship at Delta, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and the aspiring pilot’s internship was cut short.
When restaurant doors started to reopen, Makeda took a job as a server to resume saving to complete her studies. With determination and patience, she saved roughly $5000 and finished her training after 17 months of not flying.
Armed with a degree in aeronautical science, a private and commercial pilot license, and an Instrument Rating certificate, Makeda Dawson had high hopes of getting a job with a major airline. However, per Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, she needed a minimum of 1500 hours of flight experience to do so.
Committed to her craft, Makeda pivoted and became a certified flight instructor at her alma mater, Embry-Riddle Aeuronautical Iniversity. This would allow her to teach while accruing the flight hours she needed.
According to the FAA, women make up about 7 percent of all certified pilots in the United States, but fewer than 1 percent are Black women. One of the biggest hindrances for minority pilots like Makeda is the cost of training. It can also take nearly ten years before they earn a pilot ranking competitive enough to be considered for employment by a commercial airline, but Makeda is not deterred.
The commercially-rated pilot and Certified Flight Instructor is a member of the Sisters of the Skies, a professional organization of Black pilots. Sisters of the Skies offers mentorship, scholarships, and outreach programs to give African American females ages 10-18 exposure to Black female pilots, including participating in discovery flights with certified flight instructors, touring an aircraft, and developing a flight plan in a simulator.
Through Sisters of the Skies, Makeda is exposed to mentors like Monique Grayson, a Delta pilot. “Black students need to see people in these roles so that they can see that this is an option for them,” she said.
With the help of her mentor and many Black female pilots she follows on Instagram, Makeda remains encouraged.
She is currently working on achieving her target of 1000 flight hours. As for her personal goal, she would like to one day fly to Saba Island, which has the shortest runway in the world.