Taking flight, breaking barriers, and letting Black pilots soar

What happens when an industry’s evolution creates a pressing need? In the case of commercial aviation, new opportunity arises for an able but long sidelined cohort. This school promotes equity. 

A more equitable new-pilot pipeline

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Ashley Lisenby/The Christian Science Monitor
Jaylen Bush is one of a handful of Tuskegee NEXT cadets who trained at the Illinois Aviation Academy this summer in Chicago. He stands near one of his favorite planes, a Cessna 172, on Oct. 5, 2021.

During World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps. Years later, underserved youths are learning to fly at an aviation school in the suburbs of Chicago as a continuation of that legacy of service and excellence.

Jaylen Bush is a Tuskegee NEXT cadet and member of the organization’s ambassador program. He completed his private pilot training this summer along with eight other students at the organization’s flagship program location at the Illinois Aviation Academy. 

“I couldn't have been more blessed to have the people around me to help support me,” he says, standing near a hangar full of the Cessnas in which students train. “I will always remember the moral obligations to repay and to look back and help those who are in my position because that’s the future of aviation.”

Tuskegee NEXT, in its seventh year of programming, is a nonprofit that receives funding to help students gain aviation skills and life skills, and meet their career goals. In preparing students for the future of flying, the organization is also a small part of a growing effort in the industry to supply a new wave of qualified pilots as many in an aging workforce reach retirement age and demand resumes post-pandemic. And in an industry where 3.4% of pilots are Black, many close observers realize that inclusion efforts are key considerations in filling the pipeline.

“[The original Tuskegee Airmen] embodied Black excellence, and their mindset echoes to myself,” says Mr. Bush. “So being part of this legacy is more than just being a pilot. It’s pushing boundaries.”

Episode transcript

Clay Collins: Welcome to “Rethinking the News” by The Christian Science Monitor. I’m Clay Collins, one of its editors. 

People are flying again. After months of relatively stagnant air travel, reports show that a renewed demand for commercial flights is straining the supply of available qualified pilots. The commercial pilot shortage is not a new one. But as Monitor producer Ashley Lisenby reports, one small program is challenging the aviation industry to think more about training and hiring a new generation of qualified pilots that is more diverse.

[Music]

Ashley Lisenby: In the far northwest suburbs of Chicago is one of many flight schools that exist around the country where young people go to learn how to fly small private planes.

[Airplane flying overhead]

Lisenby: One of them is 22-year-old Jaylen Bush. 

Jaylen Bush: My name is Jaylen Bush. Like the president, but no relation.

Lisenby:  He learned how to fly because of lessons provided by Tuskegee NEXT, a nonprofit named for the first all-Black military airmen in World War II: The Tuskegee Airmen. It was founded by Steven Davis, and its leaders say the mission is to honor the legacy of the esteemed group of Black military pilots and help underrepresented youth serve their communities. 

The organization is in its seventh year of programming. It receives funding to train youth of color in aviation skills for careers as private and commercial pilots. It also provides life skills and educational assistance. 

Its flagship program is a summer training program at the Illinois Aviation Academy. That’s where I met Bush. I wanted to know more about how Tuskegee NEXT is working to fill the gap in qualified pilots with Black and brown youths. 

Lisenby: Can you describe a little bit of what we're looking at, what's going on around us?

Bush: We're currently standing in the Illinois Aviation Academy hangar. This is where me and the other eight cadets this previous summer were every single day. We're surrounded by Cessnas and Pipers, and there's a double-engine airplane in the corner. It's a bit cloudy outside today. I don't know if anyone's going to go do some VFR time, which is visual flight rules. But we're here. 

Lisenby: We maneuver around wings. I’m 5’5; 5’6’ on a good day. And only slightly have to duck under wings. But Bush – he’s tall.

Bush: I'm 6’4”.

Lisenby: Goodness. Wait, so how do you fit in these tiny little planes?

Bush: It's possible. You know, sometimes, I got to, you know, put one leg in after the other kind of shimmy in there. It could be a little bit of a tight fit if my co-pilot is as big as me, but I can make it work. My favorite plane. It's not here. But my second favorite plane is right here. 

Lisenby: OK, what kind of plane is this?

Bush: This is a Cessna 172. Aircraft's 320 cubic inches of fuel-air mixture. Lycoming brand engine.

Lisenby: The words flow effortlessly. I don’t fully understand. But I do understand the passion and sense of purpose. 

Youth such as Bush are likely to be the answer to a fastly changing industry impacted by many factors including the COVID-19 pandemic, newer technology, and an aging workforce reaching retirement.

Boeing projected in its latest forecasting report that more than 600,000 new pilots and just as many new maintenance technicians would be needed to fly global commercial aircraft over the next 20 years. 

The key to doing that, according to the report, is to create a steady pipeline of new talent. For standard-bearers in the industry that means also making sure women and people of color are represented.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 94 percent of aircraft pilots and flight engineers are white, 3.4 percent are Black. Programs like Tuskegee NEXT help diversify the industry through their training programs. 

Bush clearly loves planes and is committed to a career as a pilot. But he also enjoys one of the core parts of being a cadet: service. 

Bush: It's the moral obligation to repay and to give back. And that's what I believe in, especially as a man of Alpha Phi Alpha. Giving back and serving our communities, especially those of color is important.

Lisenby: Alpha Phi Alpha is an intercollegiate Black fraternity. Bush's involvement in Alpha Phi Alpha is one part of what drives him. The legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen is another.

Bush: These men were not from riches. They were not given the opportunities that white people were back then. And for them to go and exceed expectations, break barriers, to become pilots, is the very reason why I'm able to fly myself. They embodied Black excellence, and their mindset echoes to myself and some pilots just like me. So being part of this legacy is more than just being a pilot. It's pushing boundaries. It's overcoming adversity. And it’s following your dreams.

Lisenby: Right now, Bush is certified to fly private planes. He is also licensed to fly drones. His dream is to earn a commercial rating and fly a 737 or any plane used by a commercial carrier. 

As we stepped outside the hangar, Bush explained where his interest in flying began. His aviation origin story, he calls it.

Ashley Lisenby/The Christian Science Monitor
Cessna planes fill a portion of the hangar at the Illinois Aviation Academy October 5, 2021, where Tuskegee NEXT cadets learn to fly.

Bush: My aviation origin story began when I was 15. I was part of an after-school program called Ace Academy, where it was a Monday to Friday experience. Kids from 12 to 18 went to go on the west side of Chicago and learn about aviation. So this is a program led by volunteer pilots, volunteer businessmen, military personnel, air traffic controllers, meteorologists who were all Black and brown. It was a blessing where every day we'd go on field trips, we'd go and see the Willis Tower, the Boeing floor that was there, how a pilot lives over in Griffith airport, we went to a flight service station where we got to see how these people coordinate airplanes flying in the entire airspace. It was awesome.

Lisenby: He also met a Tuskegee NEXT cadet that day who encouraged him to apply. Bush did and was accepted in 2016.

Bush: I learned so much about working hard and focusing my future. Putting academics first putting myself first was probably the best lesson I learned in my own life. And I took that same lesson through college finishing high school – at the same time, before that. And I was given a second chance to come back and finish my private this summer with the 2021 class. And I did it. So that's about a five and a half year journey I went through and I couldn't have been more blessed. I couldn't have been more blessed to have the people around me to help support me and in retrospect now where I am right now, after graduating college, and I have my whole life ahead of me. I will always remember the moral obligations to repay and to look back and help those who are in my position because that's the future of aviation.

Lisenby: Toward the end of our time together in the hangar, Bush walked me through a potential landing scenario taped on the floor in blue painter’s tape. 

Bush: We'll go ahead and say, DuPage traffic, Skyhawk 20437 is inbound from the south for a left traffic landing on 2-0 right. So we'd come in and we would announce each leg that we're on.

Lisenby: He’s thorough, meticulous as he steps through the motions of the turns. I could almost picture it. 

[Music]

Thanks for listening. This story was reported and produced by me, Ashley Lisenby. Editing by Clay Collins and Samantha Laine Perfas. Sound design by Noel Flatt. This podcast was brought to you by the Christian Science Monitor. Copyright 2021.

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