Black teens learn to fly and aim for careers in aviation in the footsteps of Tuskegee Airmen

Sep 21, 2023, 9:48 PM

DETROIT (AP) — Marie Ronny and Kyan Bovee expect their futures to take off. Literally.

The Black teens from Detroit are part of a free program teaching young people how to fly, while exposing them to careers in aviation, an industry in which people of color are traditionally underrepresented.

Their classrooms are the skies above Detroit’s Coleman A. Young municipal airport and inside a large hangar there serving as home to the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum.

“I want to be a mechanical engineer with a pilot’s license so I can fly my own creations. I want to build planes!” said Ronny, a 16-year-old high school student who earned her pilot’s license this summer.

Ronny and Bovee are among nearly 30 high school students in the Tuskegee Airmen Flight Academy this year, where a majority of the class is Black.

The program began three decades ago and is designed for youths ages 14 to 19 who want to become professional pilots. It offers flight instruction and ground school classes leading to a private pilot license.

“Many kids go off to college and finish getting their license after starting at the museum,” spokesman Greg Bowens said.

The academy continues the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were part of an experimental system for Black soldiers who wanted to train as pilots during World War II after the Army Air Corps was forced to admit them.

More than 900 men trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, from 1940 to 1946. The Tuskegee Airmen have been the subject of books, movies and documentaries highlighting their courage in the air and the discrimination they faced in the U.S. while fighting for freedom abroad.

The academy’s students learn how to take off and land in surplus U.S. Air Force gliders and single-engine planes from the small airport on Detroit’s eastside, as well as aircraft maintenance.

The museum also has academies in Indiana and the African countries of Ghana and Nigeria, and the program is free thanks to private and federal government donations.

Bovee was 13 when a neighbor, an aircraft mechanic, told him about the program. He had never been in a plane.

“The first time in the airplane, it was something I really fell in love with,” said Bovee, now 18. “I enjoyed it. I thought it was so cool. I was actually (in) a small airplane at the controls.”

He attends community college and hopes to transfer into Western Michigan University’s aviation program with the goal of becoming an airline pilot.

When the students are flying “it’s amazing to see the expressions on their faces,” museum President Brian Smith said. “But first they have to get over their fear. Then it’s mentoring them to be determined to stick to the task at-hand. Once they overcome the fear, they are on their way to be pilots.”

This is a good time to enter the field. The government estimates there will be about 18,000 annual openings for airline and commercial pilots this decade, with many of those to replace retirees.

Earlier this year, American Airlines Chief Executive Robert Isom said he was ready to give pilots raises and higher retirement contributions that would average 40% over four years to match a contract approved by Delta Air Lines pilots.

A top-scale captain on a Boeing 737 would ultimately make $475,000 yearly in salary and retirement-plan contributions, while a senior captain on a larger plane such as a Boeing 777 would earn $590,000, Isom said.

Lauryn Billingsley, who is 16 and Black, is considering the U.S. Air Force and then a career as a commercial pilot.

“More Black women should get into it,” said Billingsley, of suburban Detroit. “A lot of Black women are good in math and STEM, and this is a good job.”

Billingsley admits she was a “little nervous” when she first took the controls in the cockpit.

“As you fly more, you get more comfortable,” she said.

Jibril Hamad, 17, of Detroit, also wants to fly for an airline.

“I do talk to my friends and my guys about what I do,” he said. “They find it really interesting. Every time I go up, I get a question: ‘What’s it like? You’re not scared?’ I’m calm and collected in the cockpit.”

For young people already interested in flying, fear is not a factor, said Sha’Malia Willis, community outreach coordinator and director of the programs at the museum.

“It doesn’t take them much time to be comfortable,” she said. “In that first flight, a calm comes over you when you get into the air. I wasn’t afraid, I knew it was something I wanted to do.”

Most students average about 40 hours of flight time before getting their pilot’s license, said Willis, a Black woman who started learning to fly about 15 years ago.

She wears her flight suit when speaking at schools in Detroit.

“Most of them have never been on a plane before,” she said of the Black students she meets. “It’s very normal that our kids have never seen a pilot before. When I leave, they say they want to be pilots. Now, they know it’s possible.”

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Black teens learn to fly and aim for careers in aviation in the footsteps of Tuskegee Airmen