Fairfax high school senior has his heart set on a very exclusive club: African American fighter pilots
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009
Colin Banks can talk to you about World War I and World War II planes until you’re not interested anymore. He likes to TiVo aerial dogfights on the History Channel. The 17-year-old can’t drive the distance from Maryland to Richmond by himself, but he’s flown it.
As a young black man with a passion for flying, Colin is an anomaly. The teen, a senior at South County Secondary School in Fairfax County, has his sights on the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and dreams of becoming a fighter pilot.
At a time when blacks have reached dazzling heights — U.S. president, chief executives of giant companies, even the nation’s top astronaut is a black man — you won’t find many in the cockpit of a fighter jet. The cost of aviation lessons, the required educational training and the lack of role models all contribute to the scarcity.
Of the 14,130 Air Force pilots, 270 — or 1.9 percent — identified themselves as black, the Air Force Personnel Center reported this year. The percentage is similar for commercial pilots, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Colin has 43 hours of flying time and is weeks away from obtaining a private pilot’s license. The journey has taken more than a year. It has involved many trips back and forth to the airfield for lessons. It has meant sacrificing weekends of lounging and video games — and varsity basketball.
“Young black men aren’t limited to basketball or being a rapper,” Colin said. “Basketball is a game. Flying is a career choice. It’s something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in October, Colin folds his lanky 6-foot-2 frame into a bucket seat in the family minivan. Once inside, he teases his little sister and pinches at the flecks of hair below his bottom lip. Linda, his mom, lowers the volume of an R&B song, and they all settle in for the 45-minute ride from their Springfield home to southern Prince George’s County for the day’s flying lesson.
Potomac Airfield <http://www.potomac-airfield.com/> is a tiny airport nearly hidden by the surrounding back yards in a modest neighborhood. To get there, Linda Banks slows the minivan to a crawl, navigating an obstacle course of speed bumps. At the field, Colin and Linda go over the day’s lessons with his instructor: understanding the performance characteristics of the airplane, managing power, controlling airspeed with pitch. The session will involve steep turns and stalls in a practice area in Waldorf, near the Potomac River along Route 210.
First, Colin has to check out the airplane: a 27-year-old Cessna 172 Skyhawk. He runs his finger along the propeller blades, checks the oil level and looks for dings or nicks on the wings. He looks over the flaps and the airbrakes. Once inside with the instructor, he fiddles for the right key and starts up the plane. Minutes later, he’s heading for the runway, talking to air traffic controllers: “Potomac Tower, this is 511236 rolling to runway 2-4.”
Linda Banks tells the story of how Colin was so pumped before an orientation flight that he couldn’t sleep the night before. After another early flight, he threw up. He says it was out of excitement, not fear. He no longer eats before he flies.
As an avid video game-playing eighth-grader, Colin began to wonder if being a fighter pilot could be a real job. He called up the Air Force Web site to check the requirements. “That’s when I knew I wanted to do this,” he said. “I just grabbed more and more information.”
Linda Banks, a project manager at Verizon and a single mother, began to hunt for information, too. “Once he told me he wanted to be in the Air Force — once I stopped crying — I looked at different activities for the Air Force.”
One of the activities she found was Air Force Day at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center <http://www.washingtonpost.com/gog/museums/Steven-F-Udvar-Hazy-Center,1079737.html> , near Dulles International Airport. One of the panels featured Tuskegee Airmen <http://www.tuskegeeairmen.org/> , the pioneering black World War II pilots who battled segregation. The Tuskegee program started when the U.S. government bowed to pressure from civil rights groups and decided to train black pilots for the military. Today, the airmen are in their late 80s and 90s. Sensing promise in Colin, a volunteer encouraged him to try out Tuskegee’s Youth in Aviation program.
Nurturing a dream
Hundreds of black children in the United States are exposed to aviation careers every year. There are school visits, field trips to air traffic control towers and various summer flight camps in cities across the country. The programs are sponsored by Tuskegee chapters across the country and a number of black professional groups, including the Organization of Black Airline Pilots <http://www.obap.org/> and the National Black Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees <http://nbcfae.org/website/index.php> . Still, only a handful of students each year show sustained interest in becoming pilots, organizers say.
Students appear to be discouraged by the financial dynamics of the profession, they say. Training for a private pilot’s license, the first step for many aspiring aviators, costs thousands of dollars. A private college education that focuses on aviation can leave a graduate burdened with $100,000 in debt.
Colin joined the Tuskegee program, maintaining an interest as peers grew bored of aviation museums and stories of Kitty Hawk. He attended a 10-week Tuskegee ground school and passed a rigorous federal written exam.
Others’ lack of interest has proved a boon to Colin’s piloting dreams. The Youth in Aviation program has spent more than $6,000 teaching Colin how to fly. Still, he faces long odds. His next hurdle is winning a coveted commission to the U.S. Air Force Academy <http://www.academyadmissons.com/> , which involves securing an official nomination from his U.S. representative, Gerald E. Connolly (D), from one of Virginia’s two U.S. senators or the vice president’s office.
The admissions process is daunting. The academy asks for detailed information on academic, athletic and leadership performance. It requires six letters of recommendation, two essays, an interview with an admissions officer, a fitness assessment and a medical evaluation. This giant file is reviewed by an academy selections panel and a tenured faculty department chairman. Applications from candidates who are deemed qualified are presented to a board that approves all offers of appointment by a secret ballot.
Between 9,000 and 10,000 people apply each year, but only 1,300 are offered admission, said David Cannon, the academy’s director of communications. Currently, 244 of the academy’s 4,544 students are black and 923 are women, according to academy statistics.
Even if Colin makes it into the academy, there is no guarantee that he will become a pilot. To win an Air Force training slot, he will have to pass more physical exams and academically outperform fellow cadets gunning for the same opportunity. Between 1987 and 2009, the academy graduated 7,451 cadets who went on to attend the Air Force’s pilot training; 333, or 4.4 percent, were black, according to the academy’s statistics.
If Colin doesn’t succeed via the Air Force Academy route, he will have to pursue another path to becoming a commissioned officer, a requirement of Air Force pilots. Those paths involve either a special program designed to train Air Force officers or through the Air Force Reserve. Once commissioned, he could seek a spot in an Air Force pilot training program.
Colin’s flight experience will help if he makes it into a military flight training program, according to Nelson Evans, co-chairman of Tuskegee’s local <http://www.ecctai.org/> Youth in Aviation program. He said many people with the potential to become black military pilots are at a disadvantage because they lack cockpit experience.
“To be a Navy or Air Force pilot and be black is not easy,” said Evans, a bank manager who holds a private pilot’s license. “It’s probably easier to be in the NFL.”
Mastering the skies
At 3,300 feet up in the Skyhawk, Colin has just completed part of the day’s lesson, rotating the plane into a series of turns so steep that the ground whirls by at unfamiliar angles.
The next lesson: reacting to an aerodynamic stall, a maneuver that calls for idling the plane’s engine.
The lawn mower sound of the engine dies down. A cockpit warning horn goes off. Colin is instructed to bring the nose down, and the plane dips. First the plane is flying, then it’s falling. Colin is instructed to pitch the nose down. Colin is completely cool. The plane picks up speed, giving it the lift needed to stay aloft. At the end of the maneuver, he’s told to do it again. The nose doesn’t dip as much on the second try.
He levels out the plane, and the instructor tells him to look out to the western horizon, where the sunset has amplified the dark colors of the Blue Ridge Mountains. When the lesson is over, Colin turns the Skyhawk toward the airfield and cruises home.