For 787 pilot Deon Byrne, getting there is more than half the fun
Author A. Averyl Re
First Officer Deon Byrne has made the unusual her standard for her entire life, especially in her career choice: She has flown for United for nine years, in a profession where she doesn’t see many who look like her.
“There are not a lot of women that I know of doing this,” Byrne says. “When I used to fly commuters, because I have a younger-looking face than my age, I got comments like, ‘God help us.’ But nowadays, people feel proud.”
Not that she planned to be an aviation inspiration. At 13, the daughter of a single mother, Byrne moved “from a little island, Jamaica, to the big bad city of New York. I was into school and studying, and I was the outcast.”
She explains the movie Top Gun and a chance encounter with Air Force recruiters motivated her. “I was pre-med at St. John’s University in New York. While I was at the career fair recruiting events every spring, I would ask the Air Force recruiters, ‘Is there any way I can be a doctor and fly? And they told me ‘no’ every time.’”
She studied for a semester at American University of Rome, then finished college early, with medical school, flying and travel still in her sights. She took a job as a flight attendant to pay for flying school. “The company I worked for did a lot of charters for other airlines and U.S. military. Whenever there was a hot spot in the world, that carrier would either transport troops or transport refugees. I flew around the world twice by the age of 21 or 22. It was a pretty neat experience.”
After earning her airline transport pilot license to fly commercial jets, she applied to the Air National Guard and a commuter airline. Both wanted her; she flew for the airline before getting security clearance from the Air Force. She spent two years on active duty. “I believe I am the only black female pilot to have flown in Antarctica. While based there, I flew several missions to the South Pole. I literally have been on every continent.” After active duty, Byrne served in the New York Air National Guard and got hired on at United.
When she started at United, she recalls, “People weren’t used to having a lot of women, much less a minority woman, as I was the number-two black female pilot in the company.” Byrne knew that, like every new pilot, she needed to earn the respect of her colleagues. “Every time I showed up, I was always on time, and I was always prepared.” After building a reputation among pilots around the company, “People knew what I could do; they would say things like, ‘Oh you’re flying with Deon. She does nice landings.’”
Throughout her career, proving herself has helped Byrne overcome skepticism and has opened doors, including earning a berth flying United’s newest metal, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. “I was one of the first all-female 787 flight crews,” she says. “It’s one of the most high-tech airplanes, and we were flying it. I had beaucoup customers who were very glad to see us. We did a great job.”
Flying the 787 is her dream assignment. “It brings a smile to my face every time I step into that cockpit,” she says. “And customers are excited. People will cut through Houston just to ride on the 787. It’s one of the fastest airplanes out there. We cruise really high. Someone takes off before us, and we’ll pass them over the Atlantic. I love this airplane.”
No matter how far she has come, Byrne never loses sight of those who helped her achieve, who gave her guidance to reach the heights she has. “I still get people who ask, ‘You’re not scared?’ I have to say, ‘No, if I were scared, I wouldn’t be doing this job.’” But, she says, reaching out and giving back some of the mentoring that she has received is part of what makes flying high worthwhile.