Growing up in Inglewood, Calif., Guy Stallworth wanted to fly airplanes, but it wasn't easy for him to find role models.
“I didn’t know which way to go or how I would become a pilot,” said Stallworth, now 54 years old. “I wish I had had someone who kind of looked like me or who lived in my neighborhood who could come up and say, ‘Hey, you want to be a pilot — this is what you need to do.’”
Fortunately, Stallworth was driven enough to not only become a pilot, but also to help start an annual Dream Flight to inspire under-represented children and teens as part of an Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals aviation summer camp. Students compete for spots at the camp based on GPA and an essay.
One aspect that makes it particularly motivating: "For many of the kids, it's their first ride on an airplane," Stallworth said. "There's nothing more inspiring than to ride in an airplane and to get that thrill."
Stallworth learned to fly when he was 18 years old, joined the Air Force and eventually became a pilot at Delta Air Lines. In the 22 years he has flown for Delta, he has piloted the Boeing 757, 767, 737, MD88 and MD90.
For all his success, "I just thought about my childhood in Los Angeles growing up," Stallworth said. "It would have been nice to have a neighbor" who was a pilot, to ask for advice along the way.
"I didn't have a mentor," Stallworth said. "I volunteered for many years for that reason."
He was volunteering for the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals 20 years ago when organizers of the Aviation Career Education (ACE) camp for kids in Atlanta decided to do something big.
John Bailey, a now-retired Delta pilot who founded the week-long Atlanta ACE Academy, had an idea, Stallworth said. “He said, ‘Let’s go take the kids to a museum’” — the National Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
They managed to sell the idea to Delta, which sponsored the program and gave Stallworth a cubicle in the Flight Operations department to figure out the details of how to make it work. "It took a good amount of coordination and time," he said.
For that first trip in July 2000, Delta’s then-CEO Leo Mullin and other officials gave the group of students a send-off at the gate. In Washington, then-Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater met the plane when it landed.
This year, Stallworth flew students on the 20th annual Dream Flight — along with first officer Jerome Wellons, who happened to be one of Stallworth’s ACE camp students 19 years ago and is now a Delta pilot.
“I’m fairly convinced that his being in that camp led him to be on my right side today in flying the aircaft down here,” Stallworth said shortly after landing the Dream Flight in Pensacola, where students visited the National Naval Aviation Museum.
Stallworth, and now Wellons, helped to inspire students like Fenix Algarin, 18, of Douglasville. Algarin took the Dream Flight and this year got to pilot a small plane for the first time as part of the Solo Flight Academy, an advanced program for a select number of ACE camp graduates.
“I did the camp, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, I want to be a pilot,’” Algarin said.
Wellons, now 34, remembers being one of those students. It “was just a very eye-opening experience,” he said. “I just loved every second of it.”
Stallworth said flying the Boeing 757 with Wellons beside him in the cockpit “gave me a lot of pride and satisfaction.”
“I sat there and watched him, and it was like a younger version” of me, Stallworth said. “He did an excellent job. Not only did he become a pilot. He became an outstanding pilot.”
WHAT INSPIRES GUY STALLWORTH
“I’m inspired by people who overcome challenges to do what they want to do in life, despite whatever challenges or handicaps they might have. I would never feel sorry for myself because there’s people with much greater challenges. So that gives me motivation when I see it.
At the Aviation Career Education camp, “what inspires me really is we had kids come from very disadvantaged backgrounds. And some of these kids went on to attend military academies. Some of them are pilots at major airlines. And they overcame all these major obstacles. They probably would have not been the people you would have expected to wind up in these particular careers.”
“I had one kid who was in foster care who wound up attending the Air Force Academy. That’s pretty inspiring.”