Compton-native, Kenneth Kirkpatrick, better known as “KP”—has actively worked to bring awareness to the flourishing career path of piloting commercial airplanes. As a United Airline Captain, Kirkpatrick has used his platform to pave a runway for Black youth to take off toward new heights for success in aviation.
The number of Black pilots on duty is drastically outnumbered in comparison to other ethnicities. A representative from United Airlines shared statistics from the United States Bureau of Labor and the results painted a vivid truth. Only 3.4% of the nation’s pilots and flight engineers were Black and 94% were White. Kirkpatrick expressed through his discovery of this viable career—becoming a pilot was not on his radar.
He stated the most challenging part of becoming a pilot was not knowing that it was an option, “Before I got into flying, I didn’t know any pilots—I didn’t know anyone in aviation or anything like that. I actually kind of fell into it,” said Kirkpatrick. His first time on a plane was when he left for college.
In the earlier stages of planning his life, Kirkpatrick went to the air force academy to play basketball; a familiar way for most Black men to reach a level of success and status. It was until the end of his sophomore year that he took a soaring program and flying peaked his interest.
In an exclusive interview with the Los Angeles Sentinel, the United Airlines captain described the best approach to perusing this line of work consists of persistence, networking, mentorship, and knowing one’s history. Kirkpatrick shared his love for the storyline of the Tuskegee airmen, benchmarking the footprint of Black history during the rise of aviation. Kirkpatrick said, “I watched the original Tuskegee airmen movie…I watched that during pilot training almost every day.”
Kirkpatrick said piloting calls for excellence and to have a love for service. He expressed the severity of handling people’s lives and taking on the responsibility of being prepared. “The drive for excellence is important, especially when you’re operating an aircraft and we have lives in our hands. We can’t afford to be anything less than 100% and if you’re not pushing yourself to be 100% always than you’re selling yourself short,” Kirkpatrick said.
Part of his process of preparing for a trip is “chair flying,” or visualizing the setting of flying— while on the ground, gearing up to operate the plane. As he enters the winged vessel, he takes his time to make his piloting announcements in front of the guests, outside the cockpit. He makes comfort a priority while he is in control of the flight.
One of Kirkpatrick’s missions is to bring awareness around the resources that are available to the collective community and his efforts have been matched by the support and participation of the United Airline organization.
Additionally, Kirkpatrick sits on the board of 100 Black Men of America, the Orange County Chapter and he participates in the organization that focuses on Black aerospace professionals; a program that introduces aviation to Black youth.
Inclusion has proven to be a critical component of United Airlines; they consider more than just the trip of their guests; they are looking into ways to support the communities where their travelers live.
Kirkpatrick collaborates with United Airlines’ Aviate program, located in Arizona. It focuses on educating curious minds that have no previous aviation experience and teaches them how to fly. Another United Airlines program includes Calibrate, a program that focuses on the maintenance and technicality of fixing planes.
Kirkpatrick shared one of his most inspiring moments was with his son, when Kirkpatrick was able to speak at the Oshkosh conference in Wisconsin; one of the biggest gatherings for aviation—with over 600,000 people in attendance.
Kirkpatrick’s son, Dylan, watched his dad speak and inspire other kids. “He got to watch me interact with other kids, he got to watch me take part in a panel…at the end of the day, he kind of looked at me and he was like, ‘Dad, you’re a pretty cool guy,’” Kirkpatrick said. Dylan is also in the process of being a pilot as well.