With Black women making up fewer than half a percent of all commercial and military pilots in the U.S., Hughes is reshaping the industry she loves by mentoring the next generation of aviators.
Lt. Angel Hughes '08 knew at an early age that she belonged among the stars.
She was 11 years old when her 6th grade science teacher introduced her to astronomy. Hughes, one of four children born to Haitian parents, pictured herself soaring high above the earth and beyond the atmosphere into space. There in that middle school science class, a dream was born. She wanted to fly.
Plenty of kids dream of flying. It’s the center of childhood fantasy and imaginary superpowers. Very few turn those dreams into reality. Hughes, however, was determined to do so.
Five years later, she would stumble upon an opportunity. Walking home one day in East Orange, NJ, she passed a seemingly abandoned firehouse with a sign out front that said “Learn to fly here.” Hughes wasted no time accepting that open invitation and walked inside. She found a chapter of Eagle Flight Squadron, a nonprofit that mentors and develops young aviators.
“I will always remember the first time I set foot in a small aircraft for an introductory flight at 16 years old,” said Hughes. “That feeling is indescribable.”
She was hooked. Hughes was on her way to becoming a pilot. She racked up flight time in between high school classes and a busy schedule of basketball and volleyball games, earning her private pilot certificate at age 17.
With high school graduation approaching, Hughes began looking at aviation schools. She set her sights on Florida, which offered year-round flying weather and several elite college aviation programs. One visit to Jacksonville University’s riverfront campus confirmed her path.
“JU swept me off my feet,” said Hughes. “The campus was beautiful, and I fell in love with everything they offered. Coming from a small high school in New Jersey, I liked that [JU] was small. They can give you a lot more focused attention.”
At Jacksonville University’s School of Aviation, Hughes was an eager, hardworking student and a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She became a certified flight instructor and began instructing for JU while she accrued flight time, as is customary in the program. She graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in Aviation Management and Flight Operations and was ready to hit the runway, but the Great Recession clipped her wings a bit. Pilot jobs were hard to find.
Hughes briefly flew for a small company out of Phoenix that soon went under, so she moved back home to New Jersey. She was discouraged, but still determined. A close friend had enlisted as an Army pilot and encouraged her to look at a military career path. She did, and was soon back in the cockpit flying for the U.S. Coast Guard.
“The military commitment isn’t a light one,” said Hughes. “It’s a 10-year commitment, so it’s not as simple as going to work, flying, and going home. You’re expected to lead and be well-rounded. But at the same time, it’s a solid, stable career choice.”
In 2011, Hughes became the second Black female fixed-wing aviator in U.S. Coast Guard history. Flying the HC-144 Ocean Sentry aircraft, her primary focus was search and rescue operations, as well as cargo missions. No two days were alike.
“There’s always a mission in the Coast Guard, whether in peacetime or wartime, and I love that,” said Hughes.
From 30,000 feet, Hughes had a bird’s eye view of the world, as she had always dreamed. But something was missing.
Ever since the first time she sat in a cockpit at age 16, Hughes didn’t see a lot of pilots who looked like her. She was the only Black woman in the aviation program at JU at the time, and there were no Black female aviation instructors. Very few commercial and military pilots were Black women.
According to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 3.4% of the country’s 155,000 aircraft pilots and flight engineers are Black. Women make up just 5.6% of pilots in the U.S., with Black women representing less than 1% of that total. That adds up to only about 150 Black women on flight decks every year. Hughes set out to change that.
“In 2016, I’m scrolling through Facebook when I come across Nia [Gilliam-Wordlaw]’s page,” said Hughes, describing the moment she first encountered the admired fellow aviator who would soon become her mentor. “When I was at JU, we did a project for airline management, and my team was researching Boeing. At that time the Dreamliner 787 was in early production and I fell in love with it. My dream was to be a United pilot and fly the 787. And that’s what Nia was doing!”
On a whim, Hughes reached out and the two became fast friends. One day they began naming the other Black women aviators they knew. The list wasn’t long enough, they agreed. The two decided soon thereafter to launch a networking group for Black women aviators. They named it Sisters of the Skies (SOS).
A few months later, they organized the group’s first meet and greet in Oak Brook, Illinois. For the women who attended, simply being together in one place was inspiring and connecting through their shared experiences was encouraging, according to Hughes. “There’s a perception that minorities aren’t as qualified, that they are diversity hires, which is not true,” said Hughes. “My mentors in SOS still inspire me; I still feel like a fan girl!”
Word spread quickly, and in less than a year, Sisters of the Skies grew to more than 100 members, representing over 65% of Black women aviators in the U.S. In 2017, the members of SOS established the group as a nonprofit organization and created a mission to increase the number of Black female pilots in the U.S. through mentorship and scholarships. Hughes serves as First Officer and Chair of the Board. SOS hosts an annual gala that helps raise money for scholarships to support the next generation of aviators. To date, the organization has awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships.
“Seeing the challenges that these women go through, it just goes to show how their struggles were the same that I’ve had, which my mentors had,” Hughes said. “With each girl we’re making a difference toward diversifying the industry.”
Hughes also personally invests her time to mentor young women who dream of becoming pilots. She’s taken on a dozen or more mentees simultaneously – “all my babies,” as she calls them. “Without mentorship you have nothing; I wouldn’t be here without mentorship,” said Hughes, who still keeps in touch with her mentors at Jacksonville University. “Every member and mentee we have, I make it my mission to know each and every one of them, because I feel they’re representing me.”
After 11 years serving in the U.S. Coast Guard, Hughes transitioned out of active duty in 2020 and began flying the Boeing 757/767 for UPS. She continues to serve in the Coast Guard Reserves. When asked about the future of the aviation industry, Hughes said the pandemic has changed everything. The pilot shortage is impacting the industry in significant ways, she said, with airlines working to remove barriers and create more pathways for future pilots to join their ranks. More than anything, she hopes to see more Black women like her in the pilot’s seat.