Former Navy pilot Brigitte Jacobson stands next to a plane. After Jacobson passed away in 2019, her friends and family founded the Empowerment Through Aviation program to teach Baltimore girls about flight. Photo courtesy of Empowerment Through Aviation.

Brigitte Jacobson was comfortable in the sky.

The wind beneath her metal wings as she soared between clouds brought her peace.

She didn’t expect to become a lover of planes, yet it became one of the biggest catalysts in her life – and even in death.

After Brigitte passed away in 2019, her friends and family founded Empowerment Through Aviation as a tribute to her memory. The program mentors Baltimore girls and young women with the skills they need to become pilots and aims to diversify the aviation industry.

Before her love for flying, she had a love for running.

A dominant force on the high school track team, Brigitte was a state champion in the 400-meter hurdles in New Jersey. She eventually left that life behind and attended Norfolk State University, where she majored in English and joined the Naval ROTC in 1990.

She led the Hampton Roads Naval ROTC Battalion at the university, which helped her earn a commission as an officer in the United States Navy. When she earned her wings, she became one of the few Black women pilots in the branch at that time.

During her naval career, she earned a master’s degree in liberal arts from Oklahoma City University. She also met her husband, Mike Jacobson.

Brigitte Jacobson. Photo courtesy of Empowerment Through Aviation.

“The number one thing I have to say about her personality was she was outwardly focused,” Mike said. “She was funny, an incredible mom, a fantastic wife, and an overall great person to be partners with.”

They met around 1999. Both were naval pilots stationed in Oklahoma City at Tinker Air Force base.

Brigitte piloted the T-34, T-1, E-6B (B707), and the T-37. At the time she met Mike, she was a mission commander and an instructor pilot on the E-6B, and was eventually named the lead instructor for her squadron.

But her love for flying didn’t start until she joined the Navy.

“A lot of people know that they want to do that at a very young age,” Mike said. “She wasn’t one of those people.”

Brigitte served in the military for nearly 10 years before discharging to expand her family.

Their first son was born in 2004 before the whole family moved from Oklahoma City to Baltimore. She gave birth to their second and last child in 2007.

As the boys got a little older and Brigitte felt she had a little more time, she sought out mentoring opportunities.

Enterprise Women’s Network

When neighbor Tina Hike-Hubbard and her husband moved next door, the Jacobsons welcomed them with open arms.

“They invited my husband and me over to get to know them and we have been family friends ever since,” Hike-Hubbard said.

The two families would have meals together, the kids played together, and almost every Friday they would meet at the local park in Belvedere.

“One day while I was on maternity leave, Brigitte came to my house and asked me to join her on a walk,” Hike-Hubbard said. “We talked about how she did a lot of volunteer work in Oklahoma City before moving to Baltimore and how she wanted to be a mentor. I said ‘Oh! I have a mentorship program I created.’”

The program, Enterprise Women’s Network, was founded in 2001.

Hike-Hubbard proposed that the mentorship program visits Baltimore City public schools and focuses on school-based mentoring.

Brigitte was ecstatic. In 2009, she began mentoring girls at William Pinderhughes Elementary/Middle School.

“Not only did she mentor, she mentored every year for the next 10 years,” Hike-Hubbard said. “She took on leadership roles by being a captain in the mentor groups to make sure everything with the program ran smoothly. There was never a task that was too strong or too big for her.”

The fight against breast cancer

Brigitte Jacobson. Photo courtesy of Empowerment Through Aviation.

Initially, Brigitte was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in 2012, three years into her mentorship job with Enterprise Women’s Network.

She didn’t let her diagnosis steer her off course. She wanted Baltimore City students to have opportunities.

“It was really important to her,” Mike said. “She was a big believer in equity and she could see the difference between inner-city public schools and private or county schools.”

In 2018, Brigitte was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, cancer that had spread to other organs in the body. She experienced pain constantly, including back pain.

Despite her health, she still continued to mentor the following year. Mike admired her resilience.

“It didn’t surprise me that she continued to help other people,” he said. “I’m pretty sure she realized that focusing on other people helped her in some ways. It was a very selfless and strong thing to do.”

Brigitte died in 2019, eight years after her initial breast cancer diagnosis.

Her legacy continues at Empowerment for Aviation

Students participating in the Empowerment Through Aviation program pose for a photo in front of a plane. Photo courtesy of Empowerment Through Aviation.

The idea for the Empowerment Through Aviation program came to Mike before Brigitte passed away.

Brigitte thought about going back to get her certified pilot ranking so that she could teach one of their sons how to fly.

It would have been her first time on a plane in years.

“When she started thinking about going back, I had mentioned that it would be really cool to teach the girls from Penderhughes,” Jacobson said.

Brigitte was excited about the idea but died before it could happen.

Two months after her funeral, Hike-Hubbard brought up the idea again but with a different meaning.

“She mentioned that we should do something in Brigitte’s honor,” Mike said. “At that point, the idea of the program started to form in my mind.”

Phase one of the program took flight in 2021. For three weeks, 15 girls from Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, Commodore John Rogers Elementary School, and Franklin Square Elementary School – five girls from each school – joined the program.

A student participates in a flight simulator as part of the Empowerment Through Aviation program. Photo courtesy of Empowerment Through Aviation.

“We talked about the basics of flight, the instruments, and what they may see,” Mike said.

The girls were taken to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, a public high school, to use their flight simulator before embarking on their first discovery flight the following week.

“They toured the flight training center and even learned a little bit about the maintenance of the engine,” Mike said.

Phase two of the program began in 2022. This time, the program focused on high schoolers. The girls attending Baltimore Polytechnic Institute received more robust training.

They visited airports and logged five hours of flight time, including time with instructors, learning how to land, take off, and cross-country navigation.

“Those high schoolers will go on to phase three, where they will be able to receive their private pilot certification,” Mike said. “They won’t be able to be hired but the certification is the first step to achieving a career as a pilot.”

Seventh-grade students at Roland Park Elementary Middle School consider the program one of the best opportunities they have had.

“The experience was so amazing,” said Nia Lewis, a student. “I bonded with different girls while being able to learn something new that was engaging. I told my parents I was going to fly a plane and they didn’t believe me. That shows how unique this experience is!”

Students participating in the Empowerment Through Aviation program learn about a plane’s mechanisms. Photo courtesy of Empowerment Through Aviation.

Ayana Johnson, another Roland Park student, agreed that the experience was an opportunity she didn’t know she wanted.

“I loved every trip we went on,” Johnson said. “Every trip was filled with fun and education. I gained more experience and increased my knowledge and skill. I would do it again if I could.”

Mike’s goal for the program is to be the best at what they do.

“I don’t think the program needs to grow to be good. I think it needs to do a good job at exactly what it’s doing,” he said. “There might not be hundreds of young women who want to be pilots; it’s not for everybody. But we want to help those who do want to do it and might not have realized that it can become a career.”

Those who wish to donate to Empowerment Through Aviation can visit their website or GoFundMe page.

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1 Comment

  1. Loved this! And so sorry Brigitte is no longer with us. But I am almost positive that she was a ‘big believer’ in equality, not equity. Equal opportunity not equal outcome. She sounds like such a champion for personal achievement and,as stated. “It’s not for everybody.”. But for everyone who wants to, they can because of Brigitte.

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