Black female pilot an aviation trailblazer at Southern Illinois
Vernecelyn Allen and co-pilot Abby Lee finished ninth overall and third among college teams in this summer’s Air Race Classic, the only women’s air race in the nation.
CARBONDALE, Ill. — Vernecelyn Allen may not consider herself a trailblazer, but trying to find a better term to describe the Southern Illinois University Carbondale aviation graduate is futile.
Allen, who completed majors in aviation management and aviation flight in May and August, just earned her flight instructor’s certification.
She has been navigating to new heights, pushing her own limits and helping others achieve since she enrolled at SIU as a freshman.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a trailblazer. I am more of a unicorn — they are few and far between,” she explained. “I don’t know the exact statistic, but out of some 170,000 airline pilots in the country, there are only about 150 who are African American women.”
The 22-year-old came to SIU on a Chancellor’s Scholarship — a highly competitive financial award that covers tuition, fees and housing for four years. She has excelled in the classroom, in the flight program and in the air.
Allen and co-pilot Abby Lee finished ninth overall and third among college teams in this summer’s Air Race Classic, the only women’s air race in the nation. She was instrumental in establishing a local chapter of the Black Aerospace Professionals organization and has worked to help in recruiting students from all backgrounds into the university’s aviation programs.
“I guess I’ve done my best to show up as a leader in my program over the past four years,” she said. “My goal is to get as many people on board with the mission as possible; that is, to increase the number of underrepresented individuals in our industry. I believe that diversity makes us all thrive.”
She even was able to take an SIU plane to an aviation student recruitment event in her hometown of Memphis as an ambassador.
“We’ve talked to hundreds of students about aviation,” she said, adding, “It is neat because a majority of our aviation students are from the Chicago area, it’s nice to try to get more racial and geographic diversity of students in our program.”
It has been a role she has relished.
“I think that the visibility for Black women is very important, especially in aviation,” she said. “Additionally, this is one of the best programs in the nation and I want to help bring in more students and more opportunities.”
Allen said she has not been singled out in her program because she is an African American woman — although she admits to sometimes pressuring herself.
“There have been times I’ve wondered what if I messed up? What if I do something that causes others to look at me differently or differently and people who look like me? I guess I do feel like I have something to prove,” she said. “Unfortunately, sometimes people do equate our successes to the fact that we are women or black or whatever.”
Allen is now considering what is next.
She has applied to be a flight instructor at SIU.
“I am already familiar with the program and how everything works; plus, I’d like to give back some more,” she said.
She also is looking at the university’s new partnership with Delta Air Lines as a career path and she has long had an interest in returning to Memphis, perhaps to fly cargo for FedEx.
Regardless of where she lands, Allen wants to continue flying.
“Flying feels like freedom to me,” she said. “That’s what I like about it. It is very humbling to me.”
This story was distributed by the Associated Press.