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How the Coast Guard's 1st Black woman pilot helped give the next one her wings

Cmdr. Jeanine Menze, stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point in Oahu, Hawaii, in 2006.
Cmdr. Jeanine Menze, stationed at Coast Guard Air Station Barbers Point in Oahu, Hawaii, in 2006.

Jeanine Menze fell in love with airplanes as a little girl in Jamaica, watching them take off and land at the local airport.

At 18, she set out to register for her first flight lesson at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla.

But she got discouraged when she saw that the people lining up for aeronautical science classes were mostly white and male.

"I panicked," she said in a StoryCorps conversation last month. "I don't see anyone that looks like me, and I felt like I didn't belong."

She tried her hand at coding — there were a few women in that line. But, a year later, she knew she wasn't where she was meant to be, and registered for an introductory flight lesson at an airport down the street. Seeing a woman flight instructor there boosted her confidence.

There, she said, she took off at the controls of a Cessna Skyhawk and flew over the Everglades.

"I was hooked," Menze said.

In 2005, Menze was awarded her Wings of Gold, signifying her graduation from advanced flight training and became the first Black woman aviator in the U.S. Coast Guard.

But, once again, she felt out of place. Then, two years later, La'Shanda Holmes came along.

"It was so long that I'd been in the Coast Guard already being the only Black female," Menze told Holmes. "I wanted a partner. I wanted somebody else there. So, when I met you, I saw myself."

La'Shanda Holmes is seen at Air Station Los Angeles, in 2010.
Adam Eggers / U.S. Coast Guard
La'Shanda Holmes is seen at Air Station Los Angeles, in 2010.

In 2010, Holmes graduated flight school, becoming the first Black woman helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard and the military branch's second Black woman pilot.

Traditionally, family or friends pin new Wings of Gold on the student pilots at their graduation ceremony. But when an emotional Menze joined Holmes on stage, she had another idea.

"I wanted to make some sort of gesture to say that we're all gonna be there for each other — all the other black and brown girls that were gonna be coming up behind us. And immediately I thought the best way to do that was ... you are going to have my wings."

The best way to express that, she thought, was to pass her Wings Of Gold onto Holmes.

"As you are putting the wings on my chest, I felt like I was Wonder Woman," Holmes said. "I was so proud. I was proud to be a woman. I was proud to be Black. I was proud to know you."

"You've changed my mind about what's possible."

Left to right: Cmdr. Jeanine Menze, Lt. Cmdr. LaShanda Holmes, Lt. Angel Hughes, Lt. Chanel Lee and Lt. Ronaqua Russell, pictured in 2019.
Ryan Kelley / U.S. Coast Guard
Left to right: Cmdr. Jeanine Menze, Lt. Cmdr. LaShanda Holmes, Lt. Angel Hughes, Lt. Chanel Lee and Lt. Ronaqua Russell, pictured in 2019.

There are 800 pilots in the Coast Guard. Since Holmes graduated from flight school, the number of Black women pilots in the maritime branch has grown to six — with more waiting in the wings.

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military and their families.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Eleanor Vassili.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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