By Noelle Bernard Boyer
Lt. La’Shanda Holmes is a Study in Perseverance
Lt. La’Shanda Holmes first made headlines nearly three years ago for becoming the first African-American female helicopter pilot in the U.S. Coast Guard. We met her in 2012 at the height of her recognition and praise from the nation for refusing to let her struggles define her life’s course.
Today, she continues to inspire her friends and community as she advances in her career.
Holmes openly speaks about fighting adversity from a young age, when she lost her mother to suicide, was adopted into an abusive home, and then shuffled around the foster care system.
Today, as a volunteer at Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum’s Aero Squad After School Program in Compton, California, the MH-65 Dolphin Helicopter pilot draws on those life experiences in her work with at-risk youth in her community.
“The program strives to introduce underserved youth to aviation, math, and science. Children and young adults, ages 8 to 21, engage in educational and in community service activities in exchange for flight lessons,” said Robin Petgrave, founder and executive director.
“This program has the ability to change kids’ futures and write U.S. history and world history for the accomplishments that we’re able to do with kids,” he said. “That’s what La’Shanda Holmes is a part of.”
Holmes has volunteered with Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum once a month for the past three years. According to Petgrave, if there is an event or a need, Holmes often drops what she’s doing to help.
“From her background and what she went through as a kid, La’Shanda has a soft spot for our kids,” Petgrave said. “She comes down here and she volunteers. Her ethics and commitment are infectious.”
“That’s the kind of effect La’Shanda has on inner city kids in particular, especially girls, because of what she’s been able to accomplish and how humble and how real she is.”
Tackling Another Summit
On October 18, 2013, the Coast Guard promoted Holmes from a first pilot to aircraft commander, an upgrade granted only to standout pilots who are ready to take on the full responsibility of flying missions. “It feels good because when you’re trying to upgrade you often feel like you’re under constant scrutiny and evaluation and you feel like you can’t make any mistakes,” Holmes said. “Once I made aircraft commander it was like a huge weight lifted from me. My stress level probably went down at least 50 percent.”
In the Coast Guard, pilots fresh from flight school are naval aviators unqualified in their aircraft of service. They must endure a seven- to eight- week transition course to prepare for a determined aircraft. After the course is complete, a pilot is designated as a qualified copilot, which is more of a “watch and learn” platform. Once the Coast Guard deems a pilot ready, the next upgrade is to first pilot, where certain flight restrictions are implemented.
Next, after six months to a year, pilots are looked at to be aircraft commanders. The aviation track in the Coast Guard does not promise all pilots a smooth transition from one designation to the next. Designations are not to be confused with military rank promotions, as the two are entirely separate.
According to Holmes, not every pilot makes first pilot or aircraft commander. Many do, but some are weeded out early on or decide that flying is not for them. However, if a pilot does not make aircraft commander within a certain timeframe, his or her career could be negatively affected.
Despite all of Holmes’s achievements, she admits to a giving into a heightened sense of pressure to prove herself to onlookers because she began gaining media attention when she was not yet a fully qualified pilot.
“Whenever I have a challenge or maybe a bad flight, or if things are not happening in a time frame that I think the should be, I put even more pressure on myself and then I get anxiety about it, because I can’t mess this up,” Holmes said. “I feel like I cannot fail, because doing so would not only be a failure to myself, but to the many other people—young and old—who are counting on me to win. I know people are watching, especially young people and some that are underprivileged or underserved in their communities, so I think of them as well before giving up. They are as much an inspiration to me as I have been to them.”
“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.’ There have definitely been stresses, challenges, and hills over the past couple of years but I know I’m such a better woman, and even a better pilot for it,” Holmes said. “It’s all been worth it. Those challenges early on were necessary to get me to this point, to appreciate it, and to have the strength and courage to tackle the next hill. If the journey were too easy there wouldn’t be much to value—there wouldn’t be much growth.”
“I know people are watching, are counting on me to win—especially young people and some that are underprivileged or underserved in their communities—so I think of them as well before giving up. They are as much an inspiration to me as I have been to them.”