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When people think of Black pilots, historical figures often come to mind, like the famous Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black military aviators during World War II, or Bessie Coleman, the first Black and Native American woman to earn her license and soar through the sky.
Yet, it’s rare to see Black commercial pilots in the 21st Century, as they make up less than 2% of commercial pilots nationwide, according to a report from Zippia. Like a David and Goliath story, one small, private Historically Black College (HBCU) is making major moves to change that disparity.
Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens remains one of the few HBCUs with an aviation program, and with the help of a local Black inventor, the university is helping young, Black achievers make their dreams of flight a reality.
“I hope there are people, companies that will support us,” 20-year-old FMU student Tremaine Johnson told NBC News. “I really want this. I’m determined to not let the resources be a problem. But they are.”
Black pilots faced racism from the start
The industry formed during a time of rampant racial violence and segregation in the U.S.
Thus, barriers to training up Black and BIPOC pilots were cemented from the beginning. For instance, people as talented and trend-setting as Bessie Coleman were forced to earn their license to fly in Europe since no private or governmental flight programs would accept them.
Now, as the New York Times reports the pandemic has led to a nationwide shortage of commercial pilots and grueling working conditions for those who remain, Airlines are seeking to play catch-up with a new slate of diversity initiatives aimed at making the industry more reflective of the U.S. population.
Yet, HBCUs like Florida Memorial University have been putting in the work for years without recognition, until now.
Florida Memorial University is building Black aviators
William McCormick is chairman of Florida Memorial University’s board of trustees and a FMU graduate. He noted how a Florida Memorial alum, Capt. Barrington Irving, once held the record as the youngest person to fly around the world at 23 years old.
“But the biggest problem is that flight school is expensive,” McCormick told NBC News. A flight school program may cost a student anywhere from $70,000 to over $90,000, depending on experience.
“A lot of kids who don’t look like me can come to the program because they can afford to pay flight time, McCormick added. “We have to fix that so our students from an HBCU can join the program with ease, too. We want to be a pipeline for Black pilots just like we did with teachers and principals. But we need partnerships with people who care.”
Not waiting for outside help, local inventor Freddie Figgers stepped in with a $50,000 donation to the school’s aviation program, making it possible for students like Tremaine Johnson to succeed.
From Miami to Red Tails Academy
Friggers is owner of Figgers Communications, the nation’s only Black telecommunications company.
“When I learned about how outstanding the aviation program is at Florida Memorial, we at the [Figgers] Foundation felt the need to help,” he said, exemplifying the spirit Black Americans have utilized for generations to support each other.
Though the university continues to seek partnerships for the program, the support from Figgers represents a launching pad for students like Tremaine Johnson to take flight.
Johnson was recently accepted into the Red Tails Academy in New York on a path to joining the ranks of other Black pilots.
“I’m excited because it’s really happening. I know we will have to find resources in the future. But I believe the resources will come. I have to.”