He was in a rural airport in the Iowa heartland.
The airstrip, located in the deep country, was barely larger than the wingspan of the small, two-seater Cessna that a 23-year-old Ramone Hemphill carefully climbed aboard.
Moments later, as the aircraft lifted into the pale blue sky above the farmland below, Hemphill felt a rush of clarity as he tried his hand at piloting for the first time.
“Man, it was freedom!” recalled Hemphill, now a pilot with just under 500 flight hours.
“Freedom is the word that I always use. It was the most liberating sense of freedom, with nothing under you. The land below was all flat and all the roads were in a north-south, east-west grid pattern. It was really rural.”
Now Hemphill, an avionics systems engineer, is hoping to continue reaching back to that feeling and teaching minorities like himself the same independence through flight.
99th Squadron takes off
Hemphill is preparing a five-week flight STEM-related course operated by the 99th Squadron, a nonprofit organization based in Palm Bay. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics and refers to any subjects that fall under these four areas.
The course, which is accepting donations that will help youth who may not have financial backing, will instruct six Brevard County minority youths about the basics of aviation.
“I’m a general aviation pilot. But I can tell you that you don’t see that many Black pilots out there. And there are all kinds of reasons for that. In my childhood, the idea of being a pilot just didn’t come to mind. Why not? There’s the financial aspect and really, just not having the exposure,” said Hemphill, who recalled his interest in computers and playing Sega Genesis games when he was a child.
Ramone Hemphiill with a Cessna 152. His uses this style plane in his program, The 99th Squadron, that helps bridge the gapp between minorities and aviation. He teaches a group of junior high and high school students about aviation, culminating with him taking them up in the plane.
Finding out there were few Black pilots was an eye-opening revelation for Hemphill, especially as pop culture celebrated Black astronauts such as Mae Carol Jemison, who flew aboard the space shuttle Endeavour. And there were the Tuskegee Airmen — a group of Black combat pilots who overcame racial segregation and flew missions in World War II.
The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics shows that of the 155,000 aircraft pilots and engineers, about 3.4 are Black. Women make up 5.6 percent, the 2020 statistics show.
Hemphill, who moved to Brevard in 2019, saw the need to bridge the gap for minorities in aviation.
Last year the 37-year-old pilot, who initially used money out of his own pocket to cover the bulk of his aviation costs, talked with community leaders about his dream of inspiring minority children to take an interest in aviation culture.
The 99th Squadron organization was formed, named after the famed Black unit that included pilots from the Tuskegee Institute training program. With the new program, free to participants, Hemphill has secured other funding.
His plane of choice for instruction is a Cessna 172, a four-seater renowned for its training ease.
“Some people get more comfortable in the cabin of a small plane. With that, you see everything. You also have to figure out everything, go through checklists, look at the fuel, the weight, wind directions,” Hemphill said.
“You also plan for the worst-case scenarios. That’s the thinking of a pilot. It’s a safety-first culture.”
He envisions the course as a potential gateway to other opportunities in aviation, including careers in engineering, piloting, air traffic control, the Air Force, Space Command, or as an astronaut with NASA.
Shanel Crusoe, a software developer in West Melbourne, heard about the program last year and signed up her 11-year-old son, Malachi.
“I try to keep my children actively involved in STEM activities,” said Crusoe, who heard from a friend about Hemphill’s efforts.
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“It was extremely rewarding. He went from learning to drive to learning to fly. For Malachi, that was really rewarding,” Crusoe said.
“When he went up, he took personal ownership and knew that he was in control of the aircraft with (Hemphill) by his side.”
She, along with her husband, William, accompanied Hemphill and her son on his first flight.
‘Sky is the limit’
Hemphill got his pilot’s license in 2012. He rented out small aircraft and would invite people along for short, hour-long flights.