Program helps put more minorities in the air

Aviation Career Enrichment


3940 Aviation Circle N.W., Atlanta, Ga. 30336

Tayvon Snowden is in approach mode.

Flaps and gear down. Left hand on the control yoke.

“You’re still doing well there,” says Lonnie Robinson, an instructor and commercial airline pilot. “You’re coming on in.”

But the 17-year-old Georgia Perimeter College freshman is too late starting his descent. Robinson coaches him back on track.

“I’ve had a few scary moments, but nothing to deter me from wanting to fly,” said Snowden, a Lithonia resident who is training on an airline simulator in the offices of Aviation Career Enrichment at Fulton County Airport-Brown Field. “There’s definitely a sense of freedom. It’s comfortable to me.”

ACE was formed in 1980 to encourage and train youths, particularly African-Americans, for careers in aviation as pilots or engineers.

Industry insiders say the timing may be right.

The commercial airline industry is expected to go on a hiring binge in the next few years, according to a study by Boeing, the largest maker of commercial jetliners and military aircraft. Boeing predicts airlines will need nearly 500,000 new pilots globally by 2032 to support all the planes it expects to add over the next couple of decades. There may be even more demand for new commercial airline maintenance technicians — 556,000 jobs.

Louis Smith, president of Future and Active Pilot Advisors, a company that provides career and financial advice to professional pilots, doesn’t go as far as to call it a shortage, but he said large carriers are expected to continue to “poach” talent from smaller regional airlines.

Attrition and retirement will create “probably the largest demand we’ve every seen in the industry,” Smith said.

“So it’s going to be a race for aviator talent,” he said. “It’s going to be a very aggressive market.”

The mandated retirement age of pilots was raised several years ago from 60 to 65.

“It just kicked the can down the road and delayed everything,” Smith said. “They’re going to have to replace thousands of pilots.”

Others say such predictions are overrated.

“Currently, there is no shortage of pilot applicants among our member carriers,” said Victoria Day, a spokeswoman for the Airlines for America, a trade organization of the principal U.S. airlines. She said such projections are “inherently subjective as they are based on assumptions about airline growth that have often proved to be faulty.”

African-Americans still make up a small percentage of airline pilots.

When ACE founder Julius J. Alexander Jr., 76, first started flying, there weren’t many others around who looked like him. There were no guys like Snowden, who made his second solo flight on his birthday in September, waiting in the wings.

“It’s something that you never think about doing,” said Alexander, the first black flight instructor to train students at Atlanta’s Fulton County Airport-Brown Field and a member of the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame. “If your heroes are only athletes and musicians — and I’m not criticizing that — then you’re limiting your opportunities. What we’re trying to do is give kids that exposure.”

Cayman Howard, 19, will soon take his first solo flight. Howard wanted to play pro basketball but changed his mind after he got “a small taste” of flying. A family friend who is a UPS pilot told him about the rewards of flying and how few African-Americans are in the field.

He’s taken the controls in a Piper Comanche 180 and is learning to fly a Cessna 172. “I’m holding short of the runway and my nerves start to build up,” he said. “(The feeling) never gets old. You feel the exact same way you did last time. It’s something you can’t explain. It’s an amazing feeling of freedom.”

And once you’re up, Howard said, “you get to see all of God’s creation.”

Just as exposure plays a role, so does economics.

“Some (white) pilots grew up in aviation families,” said Alexander, who has a daughter, Julie, who is a flight attendant, and a son, Patrick, who is a captain at Delta Air Lines. “Their parents owned planes. Most blacks can’t afford to go out and purchase an airplane.”

Lessons can be costly, too. Pilot training with an instructor can run as much as $200 an hour. At ACE, youths who want to fly pay about $125 a lesson, which is sometimes subsidized by companies and other pilots.

Alexander dreamed of being a pilot, even when many in this country didn’t think he — or other African-Americans — were qualified to fly.

“I grew up during World War II,” said Alexander, a former English teacher who was born in Tuskegee, Ala., and grew up in one of Atlanta’s housing projects. “Not a day went by when I couldn’t look up in the sky and see a formation of airplanes flying. I developed a curiosity and said, ‘Hey, I want to do that one day.’ ”

He got his license in 1964, the same year that Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, which barred discrimination, in part, on the basis of race.

Alexander applied for a job as a pilot at a major airline in the mid-1960s. He didn’t get the job and was told the airline couldn’t “encourage you at this time.” He asked what he could do to improve his chances.

“They said, in essence, we don’t have to tell you why,” Alexander said. “It was given back in the mid-60s, almost as it is today, if a black person applies for a job , you not only have to be able to meet the requirements, but you have to actually exceed them.”

The airlines “may not have hired me, but I gave them at least 16 pilots that I personally trained,” said Alexander, who went on to work in education, television news and corporate public relations. “Maybe my mission was a little different.”

At ACE, he helps train youths ages 9 to 18 for careers in aviation. The desire to fly is not mandatory.

Smith, from Future and Active Pilot Advisors, thinks organization such as ACE play a big role — on the air and on the ground.

“If anyone wants to fly, they should give it their best shot,” he said. “It builds confidence and should be considered an investment in your future.”