As a young girl growing up in Tennessee, Demetria “Dina” Elosiebo’s nights were filled with dreams of her soaring through the night sky, her four younger siblings giddily clinging to her back. Sometimes they reached 30 feet, other times 1,000 – depending on her faith that day.
“Ever since I was 7 or 8, I would have dreams about literally carrying my siblings on my back,” Elosiebo said. “And in my dreams, I was like flapping my wings like a chicken, and I could at some point carry two of them. But as they got bigger, I could only carry one. And I was like, ‘I’m going to have to do something about this.’”
Now, those long ago dreams of taking flight have become reality. Thirty-three-year-old Elosiebo recently graduated from Army flight school, becoming the first African-American female aviator in the District of Columbia National Guard. She joins an elite group; only 5 percent of the Army National Guard’s 5,763 pilots are women.
“It’s an honor to come behind so many people,” said Elosiebo, a Black Hawk helicopter pilot.
No one in her family was in the military or knew how to fly, but from an early age, Elosiebo knew she wanted to be a pilot.
So she started taking flying lessons at small aviation programs for children near her Memphis home. While visiting a flying group called the Memphis Blackhawks Aviation Association, her mother said, her then 12-year-old daughter learned a valuable lesson: Your gender doesn’t matter when it comes to flying a plane.
“I clearly remember her saying, ‘Oh, women can fly?’ said her mom, Renee Elosiebo. “And the pilot (who was a woman) said, ‘Of course they can.’”
That day, Elosiebo got to “co-pilot” the plane. And from then on she was “giddy” and “wanted to go back again and again.
“Most children say they want to do something when they’re younger, and then they change their desires many times,” Renee Elosiebo said. “But hers never changed — she wanted to fly.”
Her dad admired her bravery early on.
“A lot of people are scared to fly as passengers — she wasn’t scared,” said Augustine Elosiebo.
Elosiebo, who now lives in Alexandria, started working on her private pilot’s license when she was a 19-year-old college student at Middle Tennessee State University, majoring in aerospace. In 2001, at the age of 21, she had private and commercial pilot’s licenses.
When she’s in the air, she thinks about “how awesome God’s creation is,” she said. She’s also reminded of a time when she felt lucky to make it back to the ground. While working toward her private pilot’s license, she was on a long solo flight when she ended up in a thunderstorm and lost all visibility.
“I started to feel panicky and a little lost,” said Elosiebo, who was headed home from visiting a friend in Indianapolis. “And I literally started praying. I was like, ‘Jesus, please just let me get me down on this ground safely, and I promise you I won’t be so anxious to take off next time.’”
At first, it seemed as if her dream of being a military pilot would never happen. Elosiebo said she cold-called several units and mailed at least 10 applications but never heard back.And, because she didn’t have military identification, she couldn’t get onto bases to make her pitches in person.
“A lot of times with units, if people aren’t familiar with you or they don’t know you, they’re not going to send you to training whether you’re qualified or not,” she said.
Then in 2003, a mentor introduced her to some members of the Tennessee National Guard. Elosiebo made countless visits to the unit, and a year later she finally was offered a slot. But in the midst of a 15-month security clearance and background check while she waited to begin training, the unit was realigned. Everyone who had been offered a slot was cut.
She started courting other units and was picked up for a navigator slot with a West Virginia unit. While waiting again, she applied to other units. She got a reply from the D.C. National Guard and decided on that unit.
In 2012, she went to flight school at Fort Rucker, Ala. At “Mother Rucker,” Elosiebo said, she was broken down to the point where she did whatever she needed to do to get her wings.
“‘Yes, sir, how high do I need to jump? Yes sir, yes ma’am,’” she said. “It’s 15 months of just this, after that, after that, after this.”
There was water training where she perfected holding her breath. Fourteen-hour days and six hours of homework. Prisoner of war training.
All the while, she never wanted anyone to think she was asking for special treatment because she was a woman.
“I made it a point to make sure I was as sharp as possible so that I would gain the respect of fellow aviators, regardless of gender, race or anything,” Elosiebo said.
But the road wasn’t easy. Two other women were in the earlier phases of training; one later dropped out.
And there were lots of challenges.
“I noticed that sometimes I had to be right about something four or five times,” she said. “Someone would say, ‘Hmm, I don’t know about that.’”
“Once I proved myself, which is multiple times I’m right and they’re asking the questions and I’m giving the right answers, then people were like, ‘Okay, Lt. Elosiebo does know what she’s talking about.’”
When she applied for the open position with the D.C. Guard, she knew she could be the first African-American woman pilot. That knowledge helped her get through training.
“I just knew that I had to make it,” she said. “I had to be successful. Whatever it took to get the job done, I wanted to come back with it accomplished.”
Elosiebo graduated in February and now spends her days in additional training; she plans to finish this summer and start going on missions.
“There’s many others. I’m just the first in the D.C. National Guard,” she says whenever anyone asks her about being the first black woman pilot in the unit. And she always mentions Bessie Coleman, who in 1921 became the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license.
Marquette Folley, a project director for the Smithsonian who curated a traveling exhibit on African-American aviators, said Coleman had to travel to France to get her pilot’s license. She said Elosiebo’s arrival signals something “very exciting.”
“I think she’s a part of that tradition of free-thinking, brave, adventurous Americans,” said Folley. “Bessie Coleman had a phrase: ‘I refuse to take no for an answer.’ And when it comes to flight, there are these women who do just that. They are living that.”
Elosiebo’s sister, Yvonne, said her big sister just set out to achieve her dream.
“She didn’t set out to be the first black woman to do it,” she said. “I don’t think she dreamed to be the first black anything — she just always wanted to be a pilot.”
Elosiebo does hope she provides inspiration for other girls out there. “I hope it opens the door and lets other African-American females know it’s possible, it’s doable and it’s fun. I hope they’ll be excited about it too and not see it as something that other people do.”