U.S. pilot looks to become first Black woman to fly solo around the world

Just 2.6% of pilots in the U.S. are Black and less than one percent are Black women.

This summer, Leona Serao, 23, is looking to make history by becoming the first Black woman to fly solo around the world.

“The fact that I'm going to be the first one, means I'm going to be able to inspire other Black and other African people who want to join the aviation field,” she told Yahoo News.

Serao plans to begin her 3-month round-the-globe journey from New York City in early August, and, before returning home, it will take her to 33 countries across four continents. To date, there have been 142 solo flights around the world, according to Earthrounders, a site that tracks the feat. Just 11 of the pilots have been women and none of those have been Black.

There are just over 158,000 licensed pilots in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of that number, just 2.6% of pilots, or about 4,100, are Black and less than 1 percent, or about 150, are Black women.

‘Fight for it’

Born in the U.S., Serao was raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the second-largest country in Africa where just three women are licensed pilots. Serao hopes her journey will inspire other young girls there.

“It is a challenge because it’s a male-dominated field and women didn’t really get the opportunity to be pilots before,” she said. “We couldn’t even drive before [the 20th century]. And in the aviation industry, it stayed like that.”

Leona Serao
Aviator Leona Serao, who was born in the U.S. but raised in the Democratic Republic of Congo, plans to begin her historic 3-month journey in August. (Photo courtesy of Leona Serao)

Even getting to this point, Serao says, has been filled with challenges. After moving back to the U.S. ahead of college seven years ago, she found it difficult to adapt to American culture. She became a licensed pilot at the end of 2020 after intensive study for six months and spending upwards of $70,000 on flight school. She has since launched an online campaign to help cover the costs of food, fuel and lodging during her round-the-world trip.

“When you have a goal, you have to fight for it, no matter the situation,” she said.

The first Black man to circle the globe

In 2007, Jamaican-born American pilot Barrington Irving became the first Black person to fly around the world solo. Like Serao, he was also 23 when he made his flight.

Irving told Yahoo News that he recalls taking off from Miami 16 years ago with just $30 in his pocket. He couldn’t swim at the time, couldn’t afford a life vest or a survival suit, but he was determined to succeed.

“I'll never forget major media outlets interviewing me, a couple thousand people at the airport cheering, ‘Go Barrington, go!’ and I only had three $10 bills,” he said. “But folks were so inspired. This was before crowdfunding was a big thing. ... I just told myself, ‘I need to get from point A to point B and see how far it could go.’”

Barrington Irving
Jamaican-born pilot Barrington Irving at a news conference after his three-month flight around the world. (Alan Diaz/AP)

Looking back, he says, he has no idea what he was thinking given how few resources he had, but eventually people were so moved by his story, the donations started rolling in. The first, for $5,000, came from Florida Rep. Fredericka Wilson, and later came donations from players from the Miami Dolphins NFL football team.

In some ways, Irving said, the flight itself may have been the easiest part of the journey, despite the long hours of being alone. He recently contacted Serao to share his experiences and offer advice. After his flight more than a decade ago, Irving opened up a school to teach the next generation of aviators. He has also mentored at least six young people who have successfully flown solo around the world and knows the impact leading by example can have. In that way, Serao’s attempt will be of lasting importance.

“There is 100% a void of young women seeing other young women who look like them in the field of aviation that they can aspire to,” Irving said. “She will have the attention of so many women, not just Black girls, but so many women, to inspire them. And there's nothing like being the first.”

For Serao, the inspiration to fly came from her father, a former pilot who died a year before she graduated high school.

“I said, why not try to fly? Now I know I’ve found my true passion.”

Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Jack Forbes; photos courtesy of Leona Serao