24 Oct Melissa Ward ’86

Since graduating from the USC Marshall School of Business, Melissa Ward has achieved two historic firsts: she is the first African-American woman to serve as both a U.S. Air Force flight instructor and commercial airline pilot. Yet when the Chicago native enrolled at USC with an AIR Force ROTC scholarship, she originally planned to become an accountant.

That all changed during Ward’s sophomore year, when she took an orientation ride in a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star jet. After graduating from USC, Ward trained to become a pilot at Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas. The only woman in her class to graduate, Ward became the first African-American woman to receive a fighter pilot rating. At that time, however, women were banned from flying fighter jets and bombers, so Ward spent the next four years training male students to operate the two-seater, 5000-pound T-37 jet.

In 1992, Ward moved from active to reserve duty and joined United Airlines. She is still flying today, and also coaches high school basketball; a gifted athlete, Ward was a reserve forward on USC’s 1983 and 1984 women’s NCAA championship basketball teams.

In 2010, she received the USC Alumni Association’s Alumni Merit Award in recognition of her groundbreaking achievements.

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