When did your passion for aviation begin? What steps did you take to pursue your dream?

My passion for aviation started as an inquisitive three-year-old. On my very first flight, as my mother and I were walking onto the tarmac heading to Europe, I broke away from her to gaze at the aircraft in total amazement. From that point on, I always had a toy airplane in my hands until I was old enough to learn to build model airplanes and later fly them.

What are some of the common obstacles you’ve noticed minorities face when pursuing a career in this industry? What factors normally hinder young prospective aviators from pursuing their dreams of flight?

The cost associated with flight and aviation training have always been high, and it continues to be one of the biggest obstacles for a large segment of minorities who desire to fly. The average cost to train and ultimately secure a commercial pilot’s license and the required hours of flight time to be eligible to fly with a major airline carrier could cost upwards of $100,000 over the course of five years.

Many minorities begin this quest as a low-to-no income earner and therefore must look to their parents, support systems and more for financial support, from fundraising to co-signing on bank loans. Many who are committed to financing their own dreams do so by working while attending school, which often prolongs their training, or by winning highly-competitive scholarships. In 2018, OBAP awarded $172,000 in scholarships to 39 diverse recipients.

Historically, the military service has provided a viable opportunity for minorities to secure flight training at no expense to them. In recent years, that pathway isn’t as sought-after, primarily because young adults aren’t informed of the opportunities afforded to them through military service. There are nine Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States with flight programs and none of them have a flight training device on campus. There is an opportunity for former military veterans to serve as mentors and share how that pathway has led to exciting and successful civilian careers in aviation.

The Luke Weathers Flight Academy is committed to keeping flight-training costs minimal and access to information, resources and technology as competitive as possible. Thanks to the financial commitment of members of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) and community partners, we have an exciting opportunity to help close the diversity gap and address the impending shortages in our industry simultaneously.

As the U.S. becomes more diverse, how can the aviation industry change its approach to developing the workforce so it’s more representative of the nation’s demographics?

This country has always been diverse to a degree, but historically laws and leadership have worked to prevent certain groups from accessing opportunity. It wasn’t until 1965, when I was 12 years old, that it was made unlawful to deny African Americans the right to become pilots. Today, African Americans still account for less than 2 percent of the more than 159,000 pilots in the U.S.

The diversity of our country is quite possibly our biggest asset, particularly as shortages in pilots, aircraft maintenance and air traffic controllers loom and threaten the stability of our industry. Companies and universities have an opportunity to shift their cultures, broaden their reach and outreach, and rethink their growth strategies to become more inclusive of minorities.

There are no shortages of diverse youth and young adults in this country who would thrive as aviation professionals one day, but they must be afforded opportunities beginning today.

How do you think OBAP and similar organizations have been able to elevate the advancement of minorities and encourage pursuing aviation and aerospace careers?

Having been involved with OBAP since I began my career as a pilot in 1983, I have had the opportunity to support the organization in developing a robust offering that supports aspiring aviators at various stages of their journey. We’ve been successful in large part because our organization has served as the bridge between qualified candidates and careers. We’ve also been very proud to serve as a support system as our members progress within the industry.

OBAP implements a cradle to career approach, with programs spanning 22 years of a person’s life. Youth are first introduced to opportunities in aviation and aerospace through school visits and career days. Just last year we reached more than 50,000 students in the U.S. and Jamaica and for many it was their first time ever seeing a pilot of color. Exposure and training are amplified for older students through our week-long nationwide ACE Academy, endorsed by the FAA, and through partnerships with the National Flight Academy and the Delta Dream Flight.

Those students then gain access to professional mentors who provide guidance as they select colleges, who write letters of recommendation, who share scholarship opportunities and most importantly, who serve as role models and real-world examples of what is possible.  

Once in college, students are invited to attend the Collegiate Series during our annual convention where they participate in career development workshops that help them navigate the transition from college to career.  The annual convention and career exposition, along with our spring career fair, provide aspiring professionals opportunities to secure professional development including career guidance, attend networking opportunities, and an opportunity to interview with recruiters from more than forty companies worldwide.

With more than 30 years of dedication to this invested approach, we estimate that more than 90 percent of the African American pilots today have been positively impacted and guided by an OBAP program.

What are some best practices for recruiting and retaining minority students currently seeking educational opportunities in aerospace?

 It’s important to create an ecosystem that provides exposure and opportunities to advance training year-round. Our organization has recently begun student-led collegiate chapters on a growing number of aviation-focused college campuses. Our professional members serve as mentors and speakers at various events on campus to provide lasting inspiration and connections in the industry.

Mentoring through social media and digital outlets is another incredible and unprecedented opportunity to reach and retain more minorities - communicating with them in the places they are already frequenting and congregating.

There are nearly 100 aviation-focused colleges and universities and countless STEM and aviation-focused high schools within the nation. Those of us invested in the future of our industry should be connecting with these institutions on an ongoing basis to offer resources, guide curriculum that’s reflective of our industry needs and serve as a bridge to promising careers.

Lastly, there is an opportunity for programs, from collegiate to non-profit, to employ smart monitoring tools to know where and how past program participants are doing and the support they need to continue progressing towards their dreams.