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1st Black female airline captain breaks barriers and inspires others

M’Lis Ward is the first Black female captain in the commercial airlines industry. She's based in Denver and is making history.

DENVER — During the month of March, women are being celebrated for being trailblazers. Every day there’s someone new breaking barriers.

At Denver International Airport (DIA), it’s M’Lis Ward, the first African American female captain in the commercial airline industry.

November will mark 30 years for Ward at United Airlines.

“First of all, it does not feel like I’ve been at United 30 years, this is the best job you can ever imagine," said Ward. "Going to work every day is like going to play and so, no, it doesn’t feel like it’s been 30 years. I also don’t feel like I’m 30 years older than when I got hired." 

Ward calls her job an honor considering only 7% of the 14,000 pilots at United Airlines are women. For that reason, she holds herself to a higher standard.

“But it’s not because of what you typically hear, 'women have to work twice as hard and be twice as good, to get half the opportunities.' I hold myself to a higher standard because I want to be the best,” she said.

Credit: 9NEWS
Captain M’Lis Ward, United Airlines

That’s always been her goal whether it was in the air, the military, National Guard, or on the basketball court at the University of Southern California.

"For me every single day I play to win the game. I come to be the absolute best pilot, evaluator, instructor that I can be,” Ward said.

She makes the job look easy, with decades of expertise in a cockpit with nearly a thousand switches. She often helps teach and train others in the simulator at the training center. But she finds her excitement with the passengers.

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"The best thing about flying, absolutely takeoff and landing. There's nothing better than those two things,” Ward said.

While safety and her passengers remain at the forefront, being a role model for other women is something she doesn’t take lightly.

Credit: 9News
Captain M’Lis Ward, United Airlines

"I'm here to just have a great time and be as best a role model I can be," she said. "And encourage any other women to try what I've had the opportunity to do." 

Her biggest inspiration is also a woman, her mother, who was the first Black woman to graduate from The University of Chicago Medical School. A woman who always told her quitting is the worst thing you can do.

“Women are so strong you can do anything you put your mind to so we would just encourage you to reach for the stars," Ward said. 

United Airlines is working to increase the number of pilots of color and women by more than 2,000 by 2030 through its Aviate Academy.

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