Constable: Good vibes remain in the air for United's first Black pilot

  • At home in the updated "Take Flight" exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, William Norwood, 85, was the first Black pilot hired by United Airlines. This jet is named in his honor.

    At home in the updated "Take Flight" exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, William Norwood, 85, was the first Black pilot hired by United Airlines. This jet is named in his honor. Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry

  • As the first Black person and first woman to serve as president and CEO of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, Chevy Humphrey, left, salutes fellow pioneers William and Molly Norwood.

    As the first Black person and first woman to serve as president and CEO of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, Chevy Humphrey, left, salutes fellow pioneers William and Molly Norwood. Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry

  • Ken Voelker, left, a retired United pilot from Bloomingdale and volunteer at the Museum of Science and Industry's "Take Flight" exhibit, chats with fellow retired pilot William Norwood. The 727 jet in the exhibit is named in honor of Norwood, who was United's first Black pilot.

    Ken Voelker, left, a retired United pilot from Bloomingdale and volunteer at the Museum of Science and Industry's "Take Flight" exhibit, chats with fellow retired pilot William Norwood. The 727 jet in the exhibit is named in honor of Norwood, who was United's first Black pilot. Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry

  • Family and friends pose for a photo during an event at the Museum of Science and Industry hosted by Bill and Molly Norwood.

    Family and friends pose for a photo during an event at the Museum of Science and Industry hosted by Bill and Molly Norwood. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • Having piloted the jet that now hangs in the Museum of Science and Industry and is named in his honor, William "Bill" Norwood was the first Black pilot hired by United Airlines.

    Having piloted the jet that now hangs in the Museum of Science and Industry and is named in his honor, William "Bill" Norwood was the first Black pilot hired by United Airlines. Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry

  • A Jackie Robinson of the skies, William R. Norwood was hired in 1965 as United Airlines' first Black pilot.

    A Jackie Robinson of the skies, William R. Norwood was hired in 1965 as United Airlines' first Black pilot. Courtesy of Bill Norwood

 
 
Updated 6/15/2021 6:35 AM

At the 1996 ceremony unveiling the "Take Flight" exhibit on the mezzanine level of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, more than 100 fans cheered Capt. William R. Norwood, whose name graces the 727 jet hanging from the ceiling.

Twenty-five years later, at a more intimate gathering celebrating an upgrade to the exhibit, a couple dozen family members and friends come to share the love with Norwood, 85, who goes by Bill, and Molly, 80, who has been his wife for 61 years.

 

Having distinguished himself flying massive B-52s in the Air Force, Norwood was hired as the first Black pilot for United Airlines and became the first Black captain. The Norwoods also were one of the first Black families to move into the Northwest suburbs, originally in Elk Grove Village and later in Rolling Meadows.

Having to blaze his own trails, William R. Norwood became the first Black to start at quarterback for Southern Illinois University and is in the school's Hall of Fame.
Having to blaze his own trails, William R. Norwood became the first Black to start at quarterback for Southern Illinois University and is in the school's Hall of Fame. - Courtesy of Bill Norwood

He was the first Black quarterback at Southern Illinois University. She was elected as the first Black member of the library board in Elk Grove Village. When the family moved to Rolling Meadows, she was appointed to the board for Harper College and then easily won reelection.

We've got so many firsts," says Roland Burris, 84, a longtime friend of the Norwoods and the first Black elected to statewide office in Illinois when he became comptroller in 1978. Burris won election as attorney general in 1990 and was appointed to fill out the remainder of Barack Obama's term in the U.S. Senate after Obama became president.

by signing up you agree to our terms of service
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Friends since their days in Centralia High School's Class of 1955, Capt. William Norwood, right, the first Black pilot for United Airlines, celebrates during an event at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry with Roland Burris, the first Black person elected to statewide office in Illinois.
Friends since their days in Centralia High School's Class of 1955, Capt. William Norwood, right, the first Black pilot for United Airlines, celebrates during an event at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry with Roland Burris, the first Black person elected to statewide office in Illinois. - Courtesy of Museum of Science and Industry

"We were high school classmates at Centralia High School and S.I.U.," Burris says of Bill Norwood.

In segregated Centralia, Norwood, Burris and other Blacks weren't allowed to swim in the municipal pool reserved for whites or eat at the drugstore where Norwood's mom was a cook. In the summer of 1952, Norwood dated a white girl and was suspended from high school for a year because of it.

"That's how I caught up to him," says Burris, who is a year younger.

This United Airlines' Boeing 727 on the cover of Capt. William R. Norwood's memoir now hangs in the Museum of Science and Industry as part of a permanent exhibit on flight. As United's first Black pilot and captain, Norwood's name graces the jet's nose.
This United Airlines' Boeing 727 on the cover of Capt. William R. Norwood's memoir now hangs in the Museum of Science and Industry as part of a permanent exhibit on flight. As United's first Black pilot and captain, Norwood's name graces the jet's nose. - Courtesy of Bill Norwood

In his memoir, "Cleared for Takeoff: A Pilot's Story of Challenges and Triumphs," Norwood focuses on how he overcame the injustices of racism. Molly Norwood tells of overcoming breast cancer in her book, "The Waiting Game: A Story of Patience, Prayer and Perseverance."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When the Norwoods celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a cruise including fewer than a dozen members of their family, so many friends wanted to join them that their party grew to nearly 100 people. While race clearly impacted the Norwoods' lives, their family and friends cross racial lines. Among the friends attending the museum event were Paul and Wendy Meincke. Paul Meincke was the ABC 7 television reporter in the tower at O'Hare reporting the emotional story when the Norwoods' son Bill was the air traffic controller who cleared his father to land on his last flight. That son died of pancreatic cancer in 2003. The Norwoods' younger son, George, is an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Illinois. The Norwoods, who now live in Mesa, Arizona, have four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Mike and Judy Zawacke of Arlington Heights have known the Norwoods since the 1970s, when he was principal at Willow Bend Elementary School in Rolling Meadows, where Molly Norwood worked as a reading specialist. "We became real good friends," Mike Zawacke says. "She is an extrovert and a magnet, and really important to the school."

Fellow reading specialist Nancy Humphrey and Dave Collignon of Palatine are longtime friends with the Norwoods. As a white woman in the overwhelmingly white suburbs back then, Humphrey says the Norwoods made her aware of racial disparities. "I learned more about what it was like," she says.

Inspired by Vice President Kamala Harris, the first woman and first person of color to hold that office, Molly Norwood wears a string of pearls around her neck but keeps comfy shoes on her feet.

"Ask questions. Don't take anything at face value. Treat everyone respectfully and you won't have any problems," Bill Norwood tells a young museum visitor, who walks off with a huge smile.

A standout pilot flying B-52s for the Air Force, William R. Norwood was hired in 1965 as United Airlines' first Black pilot, where he soared in an award-winning career.
A standout pilot flying B-52s for the Air Force, William R. Norwood was hired in 1965 as United Airlines' first Black pilot, where he soared in an award-winning career. - Courtesy of Bill Norwood

"It makes me feel great. And not just because of how blessed Molly and I have been," says Norwood, who understands how their example has helped bridge some racial divides and that today's society offers more opportunities than the one he grew up in.

"We've changed. But we've got more to do," Norwood says. "We've got to change faster."

That was your pilot speaking. We might hit some racial turbulence as our nation continues to make necessary changes. So please return your tray table to an upright position and buckle in. We're not there yet.

0 Comments
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Article Comments ()
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.