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Flying Higher

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.

21 Responses to “Flying Higher”

  1. Navlette Tahi Says:
    November 1st, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Kudos to you, Mrs Byrne,
    I was fortunate to have worked with this amazing woman as a flight attendant and am so extremely proud of her achievements and accomplishments. Wishing continued successes and all the best that life has to offer.

  2. Harris Thorton Says:
    November 1st, 2014 at 6:43 pm

    Wow. Self-absorbed much? Ha ha. I couldn’t imagine having to sit in a tiny space for a few hours with that ego.

  3. Pearson Morgan Says:
    November 16th, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    Congratulations Deon !!! A very positive and uplifting article. I hope that it inspires many young people to try and soar for better things and professions in life.
    Please let us know if you and United will fly this aircraft to Barbados in their resuming winter schedule in 2014.
    I would like to have a big promotion here for the occasion with the cooperation og the Barbados Tourism Authority and the Grantly Adams International Airport.

    If United takes up the offer kindly email me and advise.

    Thanks in advance.
    Pearson Morgan.

  4. A.Guy Morris Says:
    November 17th, 2014 at 3:13 am

    I have a weakness for brilliant women Jamaican Flying queen you have lifted my spirits. Yes you are my queen. Keep on keeping on my lady I hope to fly with you one day. My son is also with another airline, Walk Good my queen

  5. A.Guy Morris Says:
    November 17th, 2014 at 3:17 am

    I have a weakness for brilliant women. How great thou art my Jamaican Flying queen. You have lifted me up Please keep soaring. I hope to fly with you one day soon.
    Much regards

  6. kevin knox Says:
    November 19th, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    I am very impressed with this story I would like to meet Deon.

  7. Raynell Dowdy Says:
    November 21st, 2014 at 8:57 am

    Awesome story…great inspiration!

  8. Darryl R. Smith Says:
    November 21st, 2014 at 10:45 am


    I met Deon when she was first hired as a pilot with Continental/United and had I not seen her in uniform I would not have thought she had a Driver’s license, let alone be a accomplished Pilot with tons of experience. I have followed her career since then and I am very proud of her career advancement. She is a true inspiration.

    Darryl R. Smith
    Crew Scheduler

  9. Darryl R. Smith Says:
    November 21st, 2014 at 9:39 pm

    Great Job!!! I met you early in your career at Continental/United and I knew then that you would accomplish GREAT things. I also believe you were operating C-130 aircraft in the military with landing skids for snow and ice!! Even more awesome and keep up the good work!!!

    Darryl R. Smith
    Shift Manager

  10. Rose de Vrieze Says:
    December 8th, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    This is truly an amazing story. And the lady is yet so modest in telling it! You have reached for the sky and attained the impossible. The best part is that you are still so grounded!
    Please stay that way!

  11. JET Says:
    December 8th, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Its really nice to hear about success for people like that. I give her a high fly..

  12. Dr. Dorrett Collins-Johnson RN MPH Ph.D Fmr.CPT US ARMY(Ret) Says:
    December 12th, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    As a Jamaican female professional ,I am feeling so proud after reading about First Officer Deon Byrne. Jamaica continue to produce exemplary individuals who will keep our flag flying very very high.

  13. Bill Cheuvront Says:
    December 30th, 2014 at 10:26 am

    I was fortunate enough to have Deon as one of the pilots on our crew when I was on my Very First 787 flight to Tokyo after finishing my simulator training in Houston! It only takes but a few minutes of working with her to see that she is a “Team Player” and goes out of her way to assist her Co-Workers at the Above and Beyond level!! Thanks Deon and Congrats!!

  14. Carol McNab Says:
    December 30th, 2014 at 10:41 am

    A really inspiring article. I am happy for Deon and her accomplishments, and her seemingly humble attitude. I must have my daughters read this. You can achieve your dreams by remaining motivated and pressing forward.

    I pray the Lord will protect and keep her.

  15. Lesa Juday Says:
    December 30th, 2014 at 1:24 pm

    Just wanted Byrne to know the recruiters were wrong; she CAN fly in the Air Force and be a doctor. Our daughter started out as an enlisted jet engine mechanic in the Wisconsin Air National Guard, even though she already had a degree in Child Psychology. (She already had a private pilot license & wanted to fly for the AF.) The Air Guard eventually selected her for pilot training. She is a Major now, and a C-130 pilot. Two years ago, the Air Force selected her to go to Med School through the Uniformed Services Health University at Walter Reed, and she will likely be a Flight Surgeon when she finishes. None of this was possible when I graduated from college and got my ROTC commission in 1976….

  16. Sean McCall Says:
    January 2nd, 2015 at 11:46 am

    I think that you are a wonderful person. I love flying and anything in the latitude of aviation. Keep your head to the sky my fellow aviator! Cheers to you!

  17. Joan Ballenger Says:
    January 30th, 2015 at 3:35 am

    As a fellow Jamaican, I’m so proud of your accomplishment. I do believe in this passage in the Bible. “I can do all things through Jesus Chris which strengthens me.”(Philippians 4:13)
    You are a brave young lady and I wish you God’s richest blessings throughout your career.

  18. Dutch Says:
    February 4th, 2015 at 10:02 am

    Hurray for her! I admire any company who will look at a persons capabilities and nothing else. United held out when the courts threaten them about not hiring a black person in their headquarters—–United’s response was ” when we find a black person qualified for the position they will be hired. And United won!!! I was one of the Capital Airlines gang—-retired from United in 1990

  19. Diego Horten Says:
    February 4th, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    Me parece muy lindo que las mujeres sean tan exitosas en la profesión del pilotaje, he volado con mujeres pilotas , realmente vuelan muy bien.-
    Con motivo de la Srta 1 ofc realmente la felicito por su trayectoria aeronautica, que siga así y sea pronto una Captain !!! E x i t o s .- – – – – – –

  20. Lancelot Says:
    February 5th, 2015 at 10:19 am

    I am absolutely proud of you First Officer Deon Byrne. What you are doing is what I always dreamed of doing. I know it could not have been easy and I marvel at your persistence and accomplishments. I would fly with you any time.
    If I am ever privileged to be a passenger on one of your flights, I would welcome the opportunity to meet you in person, peer into your eyes, with an aim at feeling your sense of joy and pleasure when you are seated in the cockpit of your 787.
    What a russssshhhh!
    Live long and prosper!

  21. Unicie Delapenha Says:
    March 4th, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Ms. Byrne, continue your great job, you are a Jamaican woman, I am very proud of you, thank God for your mom who raised you as a single parent, this goes to show that it is a myth that children raised by single parent is often seen as delinquent, you have proven to others that the colour of your skin has nothing to do with your choice of career, education is the key that can take you out of poverty. Congratulations, continue to soar like the eagle.

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