By Bill Ellis
Special From The Reporter
(Akron, OH) — Three years ago, Sisters of the Skies Inc. (SOS) awarded their first scholarship to RaShanda Nicole Lee. Nicole, a Kent State School of Aeronautics graduate, never got the opportunity to take advantage of this great offer. She passed away suddenly within two weeks of receiving her scholarship award, from a heart attack due to severe anemia.
According to Sisters of the Skies organization, less than 1% or less than 150 professional Black women Pilot’s in the U.S. hold a Commercial or Military Pilots License or Instructor Certificate.
“We have made it our mission to diversify flight decks in the U.S. Our goal is to drastically improve these numbers through mentorship, professional development STEM and outreach and scholarships,” said SOS First Officer Stephanie Grant.
It was back in 2009 when Officer Grant along with Captain Rachelle Jones Kerr, flight attendants Robin Rogers and Diana Galloway made history as the first all-Black female flight crew to ever have flown together from Atlanta to Nashville and back on Atlantic Southeast Airlines.
Since then, the organization has awarded scholarships through its “Jet Fuel Fund” which helps to remove financial barriers for African American females who are pursuing a career as commercial pilots.
Officer Grant met Nicole, as she was affectionately called, while she was attending an Express Jet Airline pilot training conference. After finding that Nicole was already licensed as a private pilot flying a Cessna 150 aircraft, Grant offered Nicole the opportunity to apply for the SOS scholarship.
“Wow! I remember the looks on the faces of our scholarship committee when they were going over Nicole’s flight package/resume. This young lady had already accumulated well over 1,000 flight hours, already had her private pilot’s license and was just a few months shy of obtaining her instrument rating, as well as an Army veteran becoming a Warrant Officer while learning to fly the Army helicopters. Her application stood out well beyond the other applicants,” Grant later recalled.
Sisters of the Skies partnering with Express Jet Airlines, awarded Nicole the 2019 Scholarship. She received a standing ovation as Express Jet presented Nicole a job offer to train with them as a pilot, pending her instrument rating. Unfortunately, she passed away unexpectedly in her parents home in Norton.
“She was due to have surgery to remove uterine fibroids that were causing severe anemia, but her blood got too low causing her to have a heart attack. It was devastating because her life and career was in the midst of blooming,” said her mother Judith Lynn Lee.
It was during the Akron funeral services for Nicole that Captain Stephanie Grant promised to set up the “RaShanda Nicole Lee Memorial Scholarship” using the $4,500 funding that Nicole was to receive.
A team of Express Jet pilots placed her instrument rating wings that she was close to obtaining, inside her casket. Kent State University’s School of Aeronautics flew over Mt. Peace Cemetery in the fallen hero routine. A U.S. flag was folded and presented to family during graveside services.
The Lee family got the opportunity to present Katiana Charnel the first “RaShanda Nicole Lee Memorial Scholarship” in San Francisco, CA. on February 8, 2020. At the awards ceremony hosted by SOS and Alaska Airlines, Charnel was awarded a scholarship of $6,500 and a commemorative T-Shirt in Nicole’s honor.
After going over twenty wonderful applications, the Lee family selected Charnel whose career was like Nicole’s.
The native of College Park, Ga had a career as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines and dreams of becoming a main line pilot for UPS, Fed Ex or United Airlines.
She had accumulated over six hundred hours of flight training and had already obtained her private license flying the Cessna Aircraft.
“I loved the fact that Katiana’s bio stated that she had already begun to look into the top three places for her flight career. She was aiming for what she wanted and that reminded me so much of Nicole,” said Judith Lynn.
Sisters of the Skies was pleased with the Lees’ choice and later commented on Charnel saying, “I am extremely proud of Katiana’s accomplishments. She is self-motivated and has acquired over six hundred total working flight hours, has introduced multiple aviation career choices, and has countless volunteer hours with the Civil Air Patrol.”
“Katiana is an excellent example to future aviators and without hesitation, I agree with the Lee family on their choice for the “RaShanda Nicole Lee Memorial Scholarship,” SOS Capt. Andrea P. Lewis, ANG Pilot 128th ACCS.
Katiana thanked the Lee family for supporting her career and promised to be a good example for Nicole’s legacy. “I’m sorry I never got the opportunity to meet Warrant Officer and Private Pilot RaShanda Lee, but I am proud to hear about her distinguished career. From what I’ve read and heard, she was someone we all want to be like, and I will continue to do my best to live up to that.”
Since that time, Katiana Charnel has become a Commercial Airline Certified Rated Pilot and has accomplished one of her top three choices, now training as a pilot with United Airlines.
Sisters of the Skies and Delta Airlines will be hosting the second “RaShanda Nicole Lee Memorial Scholarship”, presented by the Lee family. This year’s award ceremony will be held at the Hyatt Regency Downtown Atlanta, Saturday February 26, 2022.
Fourteen applicants have already submitted for the award. One deserving African American female will be selected to receive $3,000 or more toward her goal of obtain a Commercial, Military or Instructor Certificate.
To learn more about Sisters of the Skies and the RaShanda Nicole Lee Memorial Scholarship, visit www.sistersoftheskies.org.