Tuskegee U Preps a New Generation for Flight
By Lango Deen

Apr 29, 2004,

Reprinted with permission

Increasing diversity was one of the main recommendations of a 1998 report by the National Academy of Sciences, "Taking Flight: Education and Training for Aviation Careers." The report, written at the request of the U.S. Congress, called for expanded aviation training curricula at the nation's historically Black colleges and universities.

Efforts to meet the Academy's challenge include the Aviation Education Consortium, a new partnership composed of five historically Black colleges -- Hampton University, Tennessee State University, Texas Southern University, Florida Memorial College, and Delaware State University -- along with the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, Western Michigan University, and Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

The Airmen's achievements in World War II made Tuskegee Institute a name synonymous, for many, with Blacks in flight, and today, Tuskegee University, along with the organizations listed above, stands at the forefront of the effort to diversify the aviation industry work force. One of the university's programs now off the ground is a partnership with Kansas State University, Salina (KSU) to train students to become professional pilots. For the first three summers of this joint airway science program, all students took their flight training at KSU, but since fall 2003, Tuskegee students have taken their course work at their home school.

USBE Online recently spoke with Marlon W. Johnston, head of the Aviation Department at KSU Salina; electrical engineering major Tiji Allen and engineering student Chrystal Bridges, two of the first students in the TU/KSU airway science program; and Dr. Vascar G. Harris, professor of aerospace engineering at Tuskegee University, who authored the curriculum.

USBE: What are your impressions of the Tuskegee University partnership?
Johnston: Actually, our cooperation in the area of aviation is simply an extension of cooperation that Kansas State University and Tuskegee have enjoyed in other areas, particularly with agriculture, veterinary medicine, [and] engineering sciences.

There's been a historic cooperation between our two universities. So when we were coming up on the centennial of flight, the new millennium, the idea formulated of should we try to do this in the area of aviation, specifically with Tuskegee because of the legacy of the Airmen.

The first major training accomplishment was in the summer of 2001, where Tiji Allen, Everand Woodward and Jarret Wallace came and completed the private pilot training which enabled them to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in a single six-week period. It was a very intensive training period that included an academic portion for the ground school as well as the flight-training portion that we accomplished. These are academic courses that we present as part of our bachelor's degree-awarding program at Kansas State. Typically, there are 16 weeks in a normal semester, and we accomplish this training in five academic hours: four for the ground school and one for the flight lab in a six-week period. We were very pleased to see the students be successful in this, because we felt that that provided the evidence, the assurance, that we could undertake such [an] aggressive program that required both academic training as well as the practical, hands-on portion.

The following summer [2002], the same three students returned, and they completed the next step: the degree program's flight training, which is becoming an instrument pilot. They completed that in six weeks. And then last summer, Tiji and Everand continued, and Krystal was added. So Krystal came to our campus and completed the private pilot course work and was successfully licensed in a six-week period while Everand and Tiji achieved their commercial pilot rating.... This is a significant milestone, because these are two young men who hadn't done any flight training previous to this program, and now they're licensed as commercial pilots.

The goal of our endeavor was to essentially allow Tuskegee to the opportunity to begin providing an Aviation oriented program in anticipation of establishing an aviation degree awarding program.... It's a natural extension of their legacy as a training ground for the Airmen of World War II, and so there was no delay. We were able to provide flight training in the summer to complement the academic training that the students were having at Tuskegee U. So it was going to be a dual degree; they would complete the degree at Kansas State during the summers, using some distance training and then maximizing the transfer credit from their primary degree program at Tuskegee with our bachelor's program at Kansas State.

USBE: You've been interested in flying since you were quite young.
Bridges: You're right. We did a play on Amelia Earhart when I was in about sixth grade, and ever since then I've been interested in flying. Finally, this summer, I got my chance to fly, and I got my pilot's license. I'm enjoying it so far; I learned a lot, especially this summer. Now I'm flying and then bringing it back to Tuskegee to my aerospace classes. It's just helped more to know the design of a plane and being able to fly it at the same time. I will graduate hopefully May 2006.

USBE: Have you had any opportunity to mentor younger people? What do folks back home think? Where do you see yourself in five years?
Bridges: I will be mentoring people when I go back home to Hernando, [Miss]. I'm the first in the family to go out and get my pilot's license, and they're proud of me. I was so excited, especially during my solo…[to] be out there by myself, doing what I was taught. I'm still working on my landing, but it'll get better. In five years, I'll still be in school getting my graduate degrees.

USBE: How did you get into flying, Tiji? What's next after earning an honor like cadet wing commander? What would you say to those students coming after you?
Allen: Capt. Williams, the UAO [Unit Admissions Officer] for our detachment, asked me if I was interested, and I said, "Yes!" I've been in the program for three years. It's been great, having so much fun doing it. To those coming up behind me I'll say, "Stay focused, if you really want to do it, and accomplish your goals." [For me] the first high point in the program was my first solo. I was kind of scared, [but] once you get to it, once you get going, you fly because you kind of know it. And once you're out there by yourself, you have to correct everything yourself. My main goal is to fly for the Air Force, so I'm still working on that one.

USBE: Professor Harris, your knowledge and experience of flight at Tuskegee goes back a long way. You were a mentee of C. Alfred Anderson, who served as chief flight instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen and was the first African-American to receive a commercial pilot's certificate, in 1932. And you authored the airway science program at Tuskegee.
Harris: I came to Tuskegee in 1982. I don't want to go that far back, but one of the first meaningful experiences I had at Tuskegee was in a plane flying over the historic Moton Field. And sometime during that initial visit, I met "Chief" Anderson, who was a very active flyer at the time. There hardly was a day that went by when he didn't get in the air for a certain amount time. I was fortunate to have flown with him, kind of cherished the endorsement in my logbook.

USBE: It's been a long haul since then, and much has been achieved, what drives you?
Harris: Well, I guess I'm sort of like Chrystal. I've been told that my first word was "off flight," when I was four years old. Incidentally, Chief, when he was a youngster, ran away from home, chasing after a biplane that was on its way to West Virginia. Well...Chief lived in Pennsylvania. He got a good long way away from home before he found out where he was. I guess we're all enthusiasts, to put it mildly. I won't say we're addicted, but somewhere close to that, to flying. So, anyway, there were two things that motivated me to come to Tuskegee: One was the start of the aerospace engineering degree program, which at its time was the [only] accredited aerospace degree program on a historically Black campus.

At the same time, we had attempted to start an airway science program as far back as in 1985. We've been attempting to [meet] that objective in the program since that time. So in recent months, the things that have happened are the declaration [of] Moton Field [as] a national historic site, and...federal legislation that brings the field, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the university together in what's known as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. A part of that federal legislation included wording to the effect that there was a desire to have a living legacy for the Tuskegee Airmen in the form of a flight school [The C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson Department of Aerotechnology and Aviation Science]. So all of this said, it's been a real slow, incremental endeavor to try to get the flight school here. Hopefully, if one endures long enough you'll get it.

USBE: A graduating class of at least 20 students is being projected per year, representing a 50 percent increase in the number of Blacks who receive aerotechnology and aviation science degrees nationwide. Where will the students come from?
Harris: Tuskegee University is unusual in that it's a public and state institution. The upshot of that is Tuskegee draws about 30 percent of its enrollment from the Southeastern states -- Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama -- and to a lesser extent Tennessee and North and South Carolina. The rest of the enrollment comes from all over the country and the world as a matter of fact. We will continue to try to attract students from the Southeast, but we also have, especially alumni, who are sending students from California, Ohio, as far away as Washington State. I suspect we have a national draw at the university.

USBE: What's the update on the construction at Tuskegee?
Harris: There are two hangars at Moton Field. One is being renovated, and the one that burned down is in the process of being redesigned and will become a part of the Park Service Center – Tuskegee National Airmen Center. The Park Service has allocated office space in that building for our flight program.

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