Continuing the legacy and values of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation is working to increase the number of Black pilots and aviation mechanics who make up only a fraction of professionals in the aerospace industry.
Minority pilots in both commercial and military airfields make up about 3% of all pilots, according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, and Black women make up less than 1% of all U.S. airline pilots. It’s a statistic alarming to the founders of Red Tail and one they are hoping to change.
“Aviation is probably one of the most expensive hobbies you can pick up,” one of the nonprofit’s first scholars Torius Moore said. The process to becoming a pilot that can make a living flying is a multi-step process, each costing thousands of dollars.
Moore, now 23, became the first recipient of the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation in 2016. He was offered mentorship and funding towards becoming a certified pilot and instructor. Now he is a Red Tail Foundation instructor passing on what he learned to other scholars. The Tuskegee University graduate is also a part-time EMT working the nightshift in Montgomery, Alabama.
Red Tails was established to find middle and high school students who embody the values of the original Tuskegee Airman and provide the tools they need to succeed in future aerospace careers. Also known as the “Red Tails,” the Tuskegee Airman were the first African Americans trained by the military for combat operations.
“Since they did what they did, there has been no one to keep on to do what they did. And that’s what we’re trying to do. And there’s no better place to fly for Black people to fly than at the place that they did. Not only that, is for free. There’s not any other flight school in this nation is doing that for free,” Moore said. “Not only that we’re family, we all fly together. Sometimes we even live together, we definitely eat together, we celebrate together, we work hard together, we learn from each other. And that’s what makes us different. That’s what makes it important.”
Foundation scholars fly out of Moton Airfield in Alabama where the original Tuskegee Airman flew and the founders hope to help more than 990 pilots through the program, about the same number as the original Tuskegee Airman during World War II.
During an internship at UC Berkeley, Moore used stipend money to pay for flying but he wasn’t able to finish his training by the time the internship was over. Eventually, after running out of funds he was searching for options when he learned about the foundation.
Moore’s story is similar to others who want to fly but the expenses quickly add up. While many young people may want to earn their pilot’s license or pursue careers in aviation it’s not as simple as a few flying lessons.
“First you get your private pilot’s license and that can take anywhere from, let’s just put a ballpark number, $8,000 to $12,000. That’s just one license,” Moore said. “And then you have your instrument rating, which is where you learn to fly in different types of weather. And that can take another eight to $12,000.”
Already that’s up to $24,000 out of pocket. Then you obtain a commercial license.
“You’re charging people for hire, but you’re learning more advanced skills and maneuvers with aircraft and getting more comfortable with it. That can be another about $5,000 to $10,000,” Moore said. “And then instructor is another $5,000 to $10,000.”
The cost alone would eliminate anyone unable to pay or take out loans.
This is where the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation comes in, operating at Moton Field, scholars receive funding and mentorship. During the first phase, instructors will help aspiring pilots to attain an FAA private pilot’s license and then support them for advanced pilot ratings and/or certifications as an aircraft mechanic.
“Most of the scholars are complete funding, flying for free here and and getting their writing certification. So it’s a good opportunity to be part of the foundation. You see, because people like me like we just don’t have the money to pay for,” he said. “So having that resource, having a foundation here to not only give us funding but mentorship for our career path is one opportunity.”
Moore said the coronavirus pandemic is also putting up barriers for aspiring young pilots. Travel restrictions caused thousands of furloughs or layoffs across the commercial airline industry sending working mechanics and pilots back into the job pool.
“People from the airlines are now coming back to be a flight instructor and people from the military are now coming back to be a flight instructor,” Moore said. “You have those guys who just build in time to go into the military to go into the commercial airlines. Now, they don’t have a place to teach because those guys came back.”
The COVID-19 crisis has also put a damper on efforts by airlines to boost diversity, according to Aviation Week, as the financial outlook for aviation careers becomes less appealing.
“It’s even getting tougher, but here at the Foundation we’re getting a good bit of students, we’re getting a good bit instructors, and we’re gonna keep the ball rolling,” Moore said, adding “We’re lucky to have that.”
Currently, there are about 60 Red Tail students, including 10 instructors, at different phases of their instruction at the foundation.
Red Tail scholars have aspirations in a variety of aviation fields, some want to fly commercial jets for Delta or Southwest, other want to fly as corporate pilots, Moore said, while he said another scholar wants to fly business jets for celebrities.
“We have a good balance, we have about 20 to 30%, joining the military like me, so U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marines, Army,” Moore said. “Then we have about another good 40 to 50% who trying to go to commercial airlines and other people are kind of still thinking about what they want to do what they want to do later in life and whatnot.”
For Moore, his long-term goals are above the Kremlin line into space. While the last decade of NASA astronauts are made up of a variety of backgrounds and expertise Moore plans to take the test pilot route similar to the first class of astronauts who were military test pilots.
He’s waiting on undergraduate pilot training for the Air Force to start in March at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, then he hopes to go to test pilot school.
“Through that, I’m hoping to, you know, fly the aircraft, hopefully, go to test pilot school, and then put my hat in the ring to become an astronaut,” Moore said.
Several other Red Tail scholars also have off-Earth aspirations.
Red Tails scholar Jasmine Smith is interning at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and has aspirations to become a pilot in the commercial space industry, according to her bio.
When the NASA astronaut office is looking for recruits in the next few years, these young pilots are going to be the ones to watch.
Lt. Col. Richard Peace, the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation board of directors co-chairman, said the nonprofit hopes to extend the program to other areas in the southeast. Students from all over the country can apply and they come and live in Alabama but eventually, Moore said the program will outgrow Moton Field.
Moore said if a middle or high school student is interested in aviation he recommends applying. What started about five years ago with a small list of applicants nowadays the foundation gets two or three per day.
“Eventually, we’re gonna have too many students for this airport, or this space, because we probably get about another 100 students, it’s gonna be 100, 200 more soon, it’s gonna be too many people here,” Moore said. “So we will have to eventually branch out.”
What sets the foundation apart from other aviation nonprofits is the goal of a long-term career path and specifically helping young Black men and women.
“It’s not like, OK you get your private pilot’s license. But what do you do after that? Because you can’t fly people for hire, you can’t teach people for hire,” Moore explained. “How do you keep that currency? How do you keep that proficiency? How do you keep them in going on that career path? So there’s not a lot of foundations out there for minorities.”
Whereas flight schools might leave someone with more loans than a traditional university Red Tails scholars are not saddled with life-long debt to achieve their goals.
There are also other aviation organizations focused on supporting minorities including the EAA Young Eagles, Civil Air Patrol, chapters of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. and the Black Pilots of America.
Last year, another nonprofit, the Patti Grace Smith Fellowship, was founded and designed to help Black college students seeking careers in aerospace earn internships at top U.S. aerospace companies. It’s inaugural class of 43 fellows was announced this week. Richard Branson’s private spaceflight company Virgin Galactic also announced a new scholarship and training program aimed at Black college students pursuing careers in aviation.
The Foundation is in need of volunteer instructors, mentors and funding for more aircraft. It currently has five planes for flight instruction with plans to purchase one or two more this year.
Moore said he hopes to continue to honor the Tuskegee Airman legacy teaching scholars about the adversity and hard work the original airmen went through.
“You’re the few of many, so there’s not a lot of minority pilots out there and especially not a lot of minority female pilots out there. So we need more females, we need more males to be a part of this program,” Moore said. “And I think that if we just live by through what they did, and we should have no problem with it.”
To learn more about the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation, click or tap here. For information on applications or making a donation email firstname.lastname@example.org.