Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Leslie Irby
Leslie Irby: The First Black American Woman With A Disability To Receive Pilot's License
At the age of 16, Leslie Irby’s parents put her through a summer camp that would inspire her to become a pilot, and change her life forever.
“I took my first flight in a Piper Comanche, and it was onwards and upwards from there,” Leslie Irby told Travel Noire. “I was selected to be amongst an elite group of student pilots, and got the opportunity to fly at Falcon field located in Peachtree City, Georgia.”
10-years passed, but the passion was always there. Even though she altered her plans a bit, the most important thing for her was finishing.
Irby discusses how she made her lifelong dream happen.
Travel Noire: Walk us through the process to obtain your license.
Irby: My day started every morning at 6 am. I ate a blueberry muffin, drank a cup of orange juice and listened to Mariah Carey’s Nobody Can Take That Away From Me. I think everybody has that one song that motivates them to fight another day, and that is mine.
At 7 am, I arrived at the airport to preflight and prepare for my morning flight. I had one-on-one instruction, lunch at non, then ground school from 1 to 3 pm— depending on the weather. I would then take an afternoon flight, land by 5, off to dinner, then study hall from 7 to 9 pm.
I repeated that schedule every day for seven weeks straight. It was definitely an experience I will never forget, and am grateful to say I completed.
TN: What did you find to be the hardest part of it all?
Irby: The most frustrating part was waking up so early. I am not an early riser if I don’t have to be, but other than that it was awesome. My class started with 10 pilots— 8 men and 2 women. It ended with 6 men and me, the lone ranger woman who always made sure to lead from the front. That’s what you call Black Girl Magic.
TN: What was your reaction when you learned that you would be the first African American female paraplegic pilot?
Irby: One word, amazing! When I set out to accomplish a dream I had started over 13 years ago, I did not know what the outcome would be. I only knew I wanted to become a licensed pilot.
After some research, I found that no other African American woman had done what I was set out to do. At that point, it became clear to me that this was much bigger than me.
I’m paving the way for other Black and brown girls with differing abilities, to become pilots. The fun part about this trail-blazing journey is there aren’t many rules. I am figuring things out day-by-day. Challenges arise, and I figure out how to solve them for the next generation. Every day isn’t glitter and rainbows, but I will never stop this train because I want more girls to see people like me as representation within the aviation industry.
We are magical in so many ways. It can’t even be put into words. I am grateful for this platform I have to now, and to one day have my contributions recognized among the greats such as Bessie Coleman.
TN: Did you doubt yourself? If so, how did you overcome it?
Irby: Never! I can and do all things because of Christ. I love challenges because they keep me mentally sharp. Most things in the world are not easily accessible, aviation being one of them. I love figuring out how to make things adaptable. One of my greatest joys has been meeting other differently-abled individuals, and showing them no limits to what one can achieve— whether rolling or walking.
TN: What did you learn about yourself during the process?
Irby: I learned that I am a natural-born leader. I was paralyzed at 23, and in 7 short years, I have totally turned tragedy into triumph. I learned there are no excuses for anyone to settle in life. We can all manifest what we want our lives to be, it is just up to us to follow through.
TN: What message do you have for our readers who may be afraid to take the leap of faith, like you?
Irby: I coined the phrase “Ain’t nothing to it but to DO IT.” Life is not what TV makes it out to be. Change your mind 1000 times if your heart desires. So what if you have periods where you don’t know what you want to do, that’s the beauty of life. Every day we wake up is a new day to make a new choice. I had no idea my life would have led me down this road, but I’m grateful for the journey. Enjoy the journey. Don’t just arrive at the final destination.
TN: What’s next for you?
Irby: 2020 was a whirlwind of a year for us all. It started out very confusing and dysfunctional. I am not one to sit still for too long, so I took this “timeout” as a message from God as my time to build. I have always had a love for hair ever since I was a little girl. I started doing my own hair at the age of 10. In August I said, “This is my time to expand.”
I invested in myself and on Oct. 1, The Loc Doc ATL Hair Salon— specializing in Sisterlocks— was born. I have been booked and busy, but I am very grateful for the positive reception my business has received thus far.
TN: What else should our readers know about about your journey?
Irby: Life is going to keep going with or without you, and you either have to get on board, or get off the train. With that being said, when I first got the news that I was paralyzed, it didn’t really hit me that I was in bad shape. I was too busy thinking about the new car I wanted to get, because my current one was totaled.
My doctors told me I sustained a spinal cord injury and even then, I really didn’t understand what a spinal cord injury was. I remember reflecting on all the social media posts of people who had totaled their cars, and thanking Jesus for another day. It didn’t register to me that I was actually hurt as badly as I was. After the doctors explained it to me, I was actually ok with the news because on the other end, two people lost their lives— mine was just altered. So what do I have to complain about?
This is my blessing, not a burden. If this is the life God has blessed me with, then I am grateful. I never looked at it as a burden because I know the day where I celebrate my life— someone’s loved ones are mourning their loss. I never lost my identity despite what was happening to me. When I was told that I would be in a wheelchair, I asked them if they had a pink one, which they thought was hilarious because they never had that sort of request. They told me they had some pink therabands that I could wrap around the chair, and that is exactly what I did.
I’ve always had a positive outlook, and I just try to make the best out of life. You are the captain of your faith, so the choice will always be yours to either let obstacles define you, or defy the odds.
To follow more of Leslie’s journey, you can find her on Instagram at: @idle_but_wild.