CLINTON – Some kids know what they want to be when they grow up, but Sean Bell goes one step farther: he knows exactly what he wants to fly.
The 17-year-old junior from Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt aspires to pilot the F/A-22 Raptor, a next-generation Air Force fighter scheduled for service in 2005.
“Every time I get money, I go out and buy a book on airplanes,” Bell said. “I’ve been teaching myself since I was 4. The one thing that meant the most to me was flying.”
He’ll soon have some help getting there. Bell is one of seven black teenagers who begin flight training this weekend with the Youth in Aviation Program, sponsored by the East Coast Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., one of the only such initiatives nationwide.
The program is based at the College Park Airport and at Hyde Field in Clinton where former Tuskegee pilot Herb Jones volunteers his flight school to teach the teens at no charge.
Now in its sixth year, Youth in Aviation is the East Coast Chapter’s answer to a disturbing trend that many organizers say is developing across the skies – that of fewer black students taking seats in cockpits.
“I’ve been talking with kids in schools, questioning them about why they’re not interested in flying,” said Bill Broadwater, a Tuskegee pilot who started the program. “They tend to think there’s some danger involved.”
According to the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, black commercial pilots make up about 8,000, or just over 11 percent, of the 70,000 total workforce. That number is on the decline.
“We had been on an upward trend since the late 80s, when the industry was fairly healthy and robust – more and more minority candidates were available through both the military and civilian ranks,” said OBAP Vice President Karl Minter.
“That’s changed. The military doesn’t have as many minority pilots as it once did, so the pipeline is narrowing.”
Plus, Minter said the airline industry’s post-Sept. 11 constriction has resulted in even fewer active black commercial pilots.
But training can be expensive. A student pilot’s license runs anywhere from $3,500 to $5,000 in Maryland, depending on how much time pupils spend airborne.
The Tuskegee Airmen raise money through fund-raisers, speaker fees and donations. Although the training is expensive, the chapter has yet to decline students because of financial straits.
“The reason we’re here is to motivate and inspire young people,” said Yvonne McGee, a program organizer and instructor. “If we’re representing the can-do attitude, we don’t want to be in the position to say `We can’t fly you.'”
Students are selected through an interview process that takes into account academic performance. Organizers say education should take precedence, which is why ground school is scheduled on Saturdays in the spring.
Flights begin in June, when most high schools are finished until fall.
“This is the best-kept secret,” said Nicholas Gordon, 16, a junior at Prince George’s County’s Bishop McNamara High School. “It’s free for us, and a lot of people need to take advantage of it.”
Organizers look for students who show enthusiasm for aviation. Past students have since become Air Force officers and students at prestigious aeronautical schools.
Vani Dewnandan is one such alumna. At 19, the Bladensburg teen is studying aeronautical science at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and plans a flying career.
“There are a lot of minorities out there that don’t have opportunities that Tuskegee is providing right now,” said Dewnandan, who got her private pilot’s license through the program in 1999. “The goal they’re trying to achieve is to have kids like me see a dream and achieve it, kids that want to stick out the program and become pilots.”
Similar programs exist in the Tuskegee Airmen’s Atlanta and Chicago chapters, but the East Coast’s flight training was first in the country.
While flying is the most exciting element for many students, not everyone sees it as a career. That’s OK with sponsors.
“We know everyone is not going to be a pilot, or be particularly interested in becoming a pilot,” Broadwater said. “We’re just trying to expose them so they have a choice. There are so many related jobs in aviation.”
For Bell, the trouble now isn’t getting airborne – it’s convincing Mom and Dad the Air Force is the way to go.
“They’d prefer for me to be an airline pilot for Delta,” he said. “It pays more and I wouldn’t go overseas for a war. But I just want to fly fast. (The Air Force) is the only place in the world where you can fly Mach 2, pulling G’s.”