Leslie Irby has sealed her place in history by being the first Black woman with a disability to secure a pilot’s license.
According to Because Of Them We Can, Irby was involved in a head-on car accident — in 2013 — that left her paralyzed.
“After waking up from surgery, doctors informed me and my family that I had sustained an L3 spinal cord injury. I started rehab at Shepherd Center, in Atlanta. The first day I was told I would be in a wheelchair, the therapist came in my room and I asked, ‘Do you all have a pink one I can borrow?’ They all laughed, but I knew this wasn’t going to be bad, this was going to be a new start, so why not be myself through it!” she told BOTWC.
Determined to not let her wheelchair stop her from pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming a pilot like Bessie Coleman, Irby continued to follow the dream of flying that was cultivated when she was 16-years-old.
“I started flying when I was 16 at my local airport here in Atlanta. There is a program operated through OBAP, called ACE (Aviation Career Enrichment), whose purpose is to introduce aviation to young African American children,” she said.
The epiphany to pick up her dream again came during a flight where Irby was a passenger.
“I am an avid traveler. I have visited more countries in my wheelchair than I have able bodied. One day while flying I had the epiphany that I should be the one flying myself to some of these places. ‘Why spend hundreds of dollars on an airline when I can fly myself?’” she explained to BOTWC.
Her epiphany led her to Able Flights, a program centered around giving people with disabilities a chance to challenge themselves through flight and build self-confidence. Irby applied for the program and was accepted along with nine other aviators.
The group started their training at Purdue University, and for seven weeks, the cohort lived on campus while pursuing their dreams of becoming pilots. On June 28, Irby received her official sports pilot’s license. After a bit of fact-checking with historians, Irby believes she is the first Black woman with a disability to earn a pilot’s license.
Irby doesn’t plan on stopping and has her eyes set on earning her private pilot’s license next.
“My wheelchair is my blessing, I have so much more rockin n’ rollin to do!” she said.
Congratulations Leslie! Thank you for inspiring Black women around the world.