February marks Black History Month and CBS4 News is honoring African American firsts in South Florida.
This week we are putting the spotlight on Sheila L. Chamberlain, she was the first U.S. Army African-American woman combat intelligence pilot.
Sheila’s passion for flying comes from her family. Her father was a combat engineer and two of her relatives were original Tuskegee Airmen, but they were not the only ones who inspired her.
“Willa Brown Chappelle became my sole mentor in aviation at the time. A lot of people don’t know this but Willa was the first African American to run for Congress, she influenced me,” said Chamberlain.
“Let’s look at this, you didn’t have many African-American women pilots, much less many that even made it through flight school,” she said when asked about her beginnings in Army aviation.
“I was the fifth to come through the United States Army Flight school – the fifth. At that time Army aviation became its own individual branch in 1983 and I was number five to make it, and then I became the first at combat intelligence.”
Despite Chamberlain’s incredible motivation and passion for aviation, it still did not change the way that other’s looked at her.
“Of course there was reaction,” she said. “I was called the N-word, the B-word all the time you know. Told you’re not supposed to be here.”
When asked what inspired her to keep going despite the negative reaction she said one word, ”Purpose.”
“You know you’re here to do something, so you do it. I was raised to be humble, to forgive,” she elaborated. “You know how hard it is to forgive somebody that calls you that to your face every day and gets to go home to their family and you don’t because you’re working.”
Today she motors aspiring pilots and passes on lessons that she learned through personal experiences.
One of those she mentors is Jilbert Waite. He admits that he did not have a clear direction prior to meeting Chamberlain.
“Her courage inspired me because she didn’t have anybody who had been down that path before her,” he said. “It showed me that this is possible and that I’m doing the right thing and I’ll keep going.”
When asked if there is a message she would like to give to those like Waite she replied. “Never ever give up. Ever!”
“I put the ‘ever’ in there to emphasize it. Never give…