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Black Pilots of America Change Perceptions of Aviation Through Diversity & Inclusion

News > Black Pilots of America Change Perceptions of Aviation Through Diversity & Inclusion

It’s no secret that aviation is an industry that lacks diversity. Just as there is a need and opportunity to increase the number of women involved in aviation, people of color find themselves underrepresented in many aviation careers. There are a number of factors contributing to the racial disparity in aviation fields, but they can be boiled down to two key problems: a lack of exposure to aviation as a career option and a shortage of affordable aviation training.

Tanya Austin after her first intro flight with NY Metro BPA

The Black Pilots of America, founded in 1997, is a national organization dedicated to introducing people of color to the world of aviation and providing opportunities for them to learn and practice with others from similar backgrounds and cultures. We spoke with Tanya Austin, student pilot and treasurer of the NY Metro chapter of the Black Pilots of America, about her aviation journey as well as the work the organization does to provide inner-city children access and exposure to aviation.

Overcoming Barriers to Aviation Training

Tanya Austin’s desire to see the world sparked her initial interest in aviation, but it wasn’t until she boarded her first flight at 18 years old that she truly got hooked. From then on, Austin was flying at every opportunity. “I actually never imagined being a pilot. I had never seen a black pilot, male or female, in person,” Austin recalls. “I knew about Bessie Coleman being the first black female pilot, but it still never crossed my mind that I could be a pilot. Even being a flight attendant seemed far-fetched because there were very few black flight attendants.”

Her determination to fly as much as possible eventually led to a career as a flight attendant with Delta Air Lines, a career Austin truly enjoyed. Being a flight attendant afforded Austin many opportunities to be on the flight deck, further exposing her to pilot life. “I was amazed by the view both inside the flight deck and outside in the sky with the clouds. There’s nothing like it!” Austin finally realized it was possible for her to become a pilot after speaking with a female captain about her interest in piloting.

As a black woman, Austin knows all too well what it’s like to have a burning desire to fly, but at the same time, not seeing anyone who looks like you out there already doing the work. Seeing people who share the same skin color or the same gender as you accomplishing the same goals you’ve set for yourself is inspiring. It demonstrates that people like you have already succeeded and that there’s no reason you can’t do the same.

Tanya Austin at the flight controls.

Despite her aspirations, it would take at least 5 years before Austin could begin her flight training. She first had to find time for flight training. She then had to figure out how to pay for lessons and her flight training materials. Worst of all, a leg and ankle injury forced Austin to take time off work for rehabilitation. Her doctor said she could fly again but advised against doing work that required a lot of standing. While she could still go back to work as a flight attendant, Austin decided now was the best time to start her training.

Eager to get back into the sky, Austin purchased the Gleim Deluxe Private Pilot Kit and connected with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) to start her training. Unfortunately, Austin would later learn that the CFI was overcharging her for flight time; after paying him $7,000, Austin only had 20 hours in her logbook. She was able to get some of the money refunded, but the business relationship became contentious and degraded to a point where it was no longer desirable to work together. Even as a working adult, the costs necessary for renting an aircraft, buying avgas, and paying a flight instructor had become overwhelming, regardless of whether or not she was overcharged for flight time. It was now plain as day how the costs of aviation training directly limit exposure and access to the field.

Chapter President Brian Worthington and Treasurer Tanya Austin

Undeterred, Austin connected with pilot, chapter founder, and then-President of the NY Metro chapter, Clyde Vanel, via social media while searching for black pilot groups. “I had been emailing him for at least a year asking questions, and he’d answer them and always invite me to the chapter meetings.” Despite Vanel’s encouragement, Austin was hesitant to join until she saw photos featuring local business owner, student pilot, and chapter secretary, Ms. Ummkhair Brown. Seeing her gave Austin the courage to meet face-to-face with Mr. Vanel. “He told me that the organization makes it possible for anyone to fly, no matter their social or economic background.”

The following week, Austin took a flight with Brian Worthington, current chapter president and commercial pilot. As soon as they landed she went up again with the chapter’s vice president, Sidney Irish. Austin joined the NY Metro chapter of Black Pilots of America in April 2016. Since then she has partnered with Worthington and another chapter member, Mike Turnbull, to start a flight services company and flight club called Flight King NYC located at the Farmingdale Republic Airport (KFRG) in Long Island, NY. Austin now continues her training to become a commercial pilot.

Providing Access and Exposure to Aviation

The Black Pilots of America hosts a variety of camps and community outreach events designed to introduce both children and adults to aviation. On Memorial Day weekend, the Black Pilots of America hosts the annual Operation Skyhook. Members and aviation enthusiasts from across the nation converge on Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to showcase their aircraft and take part in a flying competition. Hundreds of children take flight with BPA members, many of them taking their very first flights.

Chapters also encourage student members to attend the annual two-week Summer Flight Academy at Texas Southern University in Houston, TX. This year, the “total immersion” event runs from July 7–July 21, 2018. To be eligible for participation, students must have a B average or higher, be between the ages of 15–19, and have demonstrated motivation to learn to fly. Flight instructors volunteer their time to provide the students with 40 hours of ground school and 10 hours of flight time. During their instruction, students will touch on all aspects of aviation, including interacting with avionics and learning about aircraft maintenance and aviation operations as they pertain to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

Not only do students get incredible exposure to aviation, when students successfully complete the rigorous academy, they will have the opportunity to go on their very own solo flight. Academy participant, Kevin Dupree, said of his experience, “It is amazing how you could take someone who knew nothing about flying an airplane, like myself, and in two weeks have them knowing all of the basic principles, procedures, and maneuvers of flight!”

For Tanya Austin, it’s important that these national events be supported at the local level by connecting with schools and community youth groups. One way the NY Metro chapter conducts local outreach is by hosting and participating in Airport Days at various airports like Old Bridge Airport (3N6) in New Jersey, Brookhaven Airport (KHWV), and LaGuardia (LGA), where kids of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds can take a flight with a BPA member for free. Children also get to spend time with simulators and drones when permitted. The next Airport Day will be at LaGuardia Airport on June 23rd. Stop by and pick up a Gleim Learn to Fly booklet while you’re there!

Students folding paper airplanes as part of STEM Day

The NY Metro chapter also partnered with the New York Edge program to offer an aviation workshop as a part of STEM Day. During the workshop, inner-city students learned about the history, technology, and career options in aviation. Students also had the chance to fly flight simulators. Other activities, like the paper airplane competition, served to excite students about the material they were learning and give it some real life application. “What we do is very subtle. It’s like putting medicine inside a soda,” said Austin of their approach to aviation exposure.

Austin recounted a time when she met a 19-year-old man who just started flying. Since they both lived in Brooklyn, she offered him a ride home. On the way, she spoke to him about flying and joining the Black Pilots of America. Austin gave the young man a couple things from her deluxe pilot kit and met him a couple more times before she started a flight attendant job at a regional airline.

Student Member Michael Evans completing his CFI Checkride

A year later, she met another man at a chapter meeting waiting for his son. “He told me that he always wanted to fly, but he had a son at a young age and gave up his aviation dreams to be a single dad. He went on to say that someone from the airline told his son about [BPA] and gave him a flight computer, a plotter, and some aviation publications. He said he hadn’t met the lady but came to check out the organization based on that and the word of another member,” Austin recalled. “I said, ‘That’s awesome!’ and asked who his son was. When he turned around, I realized he was the young man I had given the ride home to a year ago! Not only did the young man already have his private license, he is now working on his instrument rating. His father is now moving forward with his own training.”

Moments like these are the rewards for all the work the Black Pilots of America do. The organization’s role is to change the perceptions that people of color have about what is attainable in the aviation industry while advocating for those who want to pursue a hobby or career in aviation. Volunteers and members share a genuine love for aviation and work together to make sure all people have the opportunity to accomplish their dreams, regardless of their lot in life. As Austin says, “We give everything we have to do our part for diversity and inclusion.”

Getting Involved with the NY Metro Black Pilots of America

The NY Metro chapter offers intro flights to adults and discounted rates for youth members to fly with paid adults. The chapter meets every first Sunday at the Flight King NYC location at the Republic Airport (KFRG) in Farmingdale, NY, on Long Island. Follow the NY Metro Black Pilots of America on Facebook or visit the organization’s national website to learn about upcoming events. If you’re interested in helping fund the organization or participate in outreach events, you may reach out directly to Tanya Austin, treasurer of the NY Metro chapter, at (347)721-6199.

NY Metro Chapter BPA Monthly Meeting and Ground School

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