No More Studies
I have seen many “studies” on how to increase the number of African American pilots. I don’t even read them anymore. It seems that they are all filled with similar recommendations that go nowhere. It has come to the point where it seems that every few years, the Air Force spends millions of dollars on a study. Inevitably the study that says that there aren’t enough college-educated minorities in the pipeline to effect a significant change in its officer—or certainly rated officer—diversity landscape.
The completed studies have now begun to feel like appeasement. Specifically, a gesture offered to appease those clamoring for greater diversity in the Air Force officer/rated officer ranks. What if the Air Force had given those millions of dollars to aviation camps to cultivate an early interest in flying amongst minority youth? Or dedicated them to restoring Type II ROTC scholarships at Historically Black Colleges (HBCUs) and minority institutions?
In my role as Deputy Director of the Defense Business Board, I helped to complete a diversity study for the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF). I will refer to the research that I completed for that study throughout this book. When the SECDEF’s diversity study was complete in 2003, I wrote to former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Colin Powell. I wanted his feedback on the diversity recommendations which had been subtracted from the final Defense Business Board report. He read them and wrote back. I was elated…until I read his words. He said that I hadn’t really come up with anything that hadn’t been recommended before.
At first, his response hurt my feelings because I felt that the task group and I had worked so hard to research the diversity recommendations. That’s when it hit me. The problem wasn’t with the recommendations. The problem was that there was no genuine interest in making the significant changes that would be required to implement the recommendations. Since then, I have seen many of the same recommendations in studies that came after the 2003 study and in diversity interest groups on social media.
We don’t need any more studies and repeats of past recommendations. What is needed is action on the good recommendations that have been surfacing for decades. The actions the Air Force must take are at an institutional and cultural level. Specifically, there must be a hard break with the way the Air Force conducts pilot training and the way it cultivates minority talent.
The interviews with pilots in this book show what many previous studies/reports have already shown, that the training of minority pilots has been broken, probably since the integration of the Air Force’s flying units. In the interviews with black pilot training students from the 1960s to the present, you will see recurring themes, such as the impact of being the only black student in the class, the absence of black role models in flight training, and the feeling amongst black students that they had to work harder than their non-minority peers to overcome bias or other negative perceptions.
Finally, one of the most surprising things you will find in this book is that some of the most effective recommendations for changes to the way that the Air Force conducts pilot training and cultivates minority talent have already been tested more than once in the Air Force over the past 71 years.
Not only were these recommendations tested in the Air Force, but they were proven successful and later abandoned. The senior leadership of the Air Force must start there, with these little-known practices that have already proven successful. I will call these “low hanging fruit” changes that can be implemented with little investment and upheaval to the current Air Force culture.
The remainder of the book will be a mix of recommended changes based on diversity research and survey responses collected from black pilots from every generation of Air Force history. Together they will reinforce the recommended changes proposed to the way the Air Force conducts pilot training/SUPT.
Low Hanging Fruit: Clustering Minority Pilot Training Students
In “Black Ceiling,” I made the point that clustering black student pilots and instructor pilots together had an extraordinary impact on the success rate of the student pilots. It had the effect of making the culture more supportive by providing same-race role models, influencing the handling of struggling minority students, and, in some cases, influencing the decisions on whether or not to wash minority students out of training.
In “Black Ceiling” I showed that segregation resulted in a clustering of black pilots and had a significant part in the success of the Tuskegee Airmen and that similar success was achieved again by a clustering “experiment” in the 1970s. When I used the word success in “Black Ceiling” to describe the outcome of clustering, I am specifically referring to lower pilot attrition and successful follow-on careers:
“that there had to be elements of their 'experiment' that made them successful and that if these elements could be identified, they could be extracted and replicated. This is a crucial premise: there are lessons hidden in the Tuskegee Airmen 'experiment' that if extracted and replicated can help the Air Force produce high caliber minority fighter pilots in large numbers as was done 70 years ago… I believe their different ecosystem though is the starting place to finding what made the Tuskegee Airmen successful. I do believe I have found several success factors that are still relevant for today’s training of minority pilots in the Air Force. Most of them were anecdotal or seemingly common sense and sat right there on the surface to be gleaned. The challenge was taking these hidden-in-plain-sight success principles and finding the empirical explanations to back them up.'
For example, it would be fairly easy for me as a black officer to understand why black pilots being trained in an all-black unit, with black mentors and one of the greatest black Air Force heroes as their leader would have more camaraderie and be more successful in training than in a setting typical of Air Force pilot training during my career. During my career, a black officer/pilot would have been in a predominately white unit with very few same-race peers, little or no same race mentors, and no senior role models of the same race, in a small town in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, etc. The challenge that I will answer in this book is to show empirically, from research what is painfully obvious to me as I look at the Tuskegee Airmen.” (Thompson, 2016)
Later in “Black Ceiling,” I reported that the Air Force tried an experiment in which it clustered six black pilot training students and several black instructor pilots at one base. It was an experiment because the typical practice at the time often resulted in a black student in a SUPT class by himself.
I learned about the experiment from former Air Education and Training Command Vice Commander, Lt Gen John Hopper. I later met Larry “Jet” Jackson, who was a member of this experiment, and he told me how successful the experiment was. He also shared the success in “Flying Beyond the Barrier”: “There were six black guys - Afro Americans - with fro' s in my 75-03 UPT class. That was done intentionally by the Air Force as an experiment in 1973 because of the high UPT attrition rates for blacks in the early 70's. All of us graduated.” (Flying Beyond The Barrier Memoirs by Forty African American Airline Pilots, 2015).
In my interview with Lt Gen Hopper, I asked if the successful graduation rate was:
“because black IPs looked the other way at discrepancies to help their minority brethren succeed, he said no. He said that, in fact, the black IPs were not matched with the black pilot candidates. He said that the reason the students were successful was that the black IPs served as role models, 'faces that look like mine,' and demonstrated to black pilot candidates that it could be done. He said that for minority pilots, the black IPs were 'somebody you think you can approach to ask a question' and for non-minority IPs 'to turn to with their questions on how best to get through to minority students.' He also stated that having black IPs in the 'flight meetings,' where they discussed how to help the students that were doing poorly, was part of the success. Lt Gen Hopper called the experiment a 'built-in peer group' to progress through pilot training.” (Thompson, 2016)
The black pilots in the clustering experiment in 1975 (Class 75-03) came from all the commissioning sources: USAFA, ROTC-HBCU, ROTC-large mainstream university, and OTS. All six pilots in UPT class 75-03 graduated, a 100% graduation rate at a time when black pilots were washing out at a rate of 56% (Thompson, 2016).
This “test case” illustrates how elements of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment could be replicated today. The clustering of these six men appears to have been helpful in their creation of their own mini-culture within the culture of their SUPT class at Vance AFB, OK. This clustering experiment also showed that when some of the negative cultural impacts (lack of same-race peers, lack of same-race role models) are mitigated, the success can be astonishing (Thompson, 2016).
As part of my interviews for this book, I interviewed Bill Norwood, a SUPT student in 1960. He explained that the Air Force understood the negative impacts of having a single black student in a class nearly 60 years ago and started the practice of clustering black students in pilot training:
Bill: A friend of mine who went to Selma after I did, and they had only one black in the training. They petitioned and got the situation where they would no longer send only one black to pilot training in Selma.
Ivan: Oh, wow.
Bill: They send two or more.
Recently I discovered another bit of the Air Force’s past history experimenting with clustering that also occurred in the early 1970s. F. E. Chuck Rich, Leon Johnson (now Brigadier General retired), and Tony Marshall gathered “facts and figures” aimed at “convincing the USAF to have at least two minority pilots per class in UPT to assist with their assimilation into the Air Force. This proved to be a very effective training model, and the minority attrition rate dropped significantly.” (Flying Beyond The Barrier Memoirs by Forty African American Airline Pilots, 2015)
Though I have not been able to gather any data to quantify the specific impact on minority attrition rates, I did speak with Tony Marshall. He said the Air Force implemented this clustering practice by telling him that he was limited to two choices for SUPT bases, Williams Air Force Base (AFB) and Vance AFB at that time. When he arrived at Williams in 1974, a number of black student pilot trainees were there, including Chuck Rich and Leon Johnson.
I have not yet been able to determine whether the efforts of Rich, Johnson, and Marshall led to the clustering experiment involving Larry “Jet” Jackson in the class 75-03 or not. However, one thing is clear: despite the success of the experiments, the Air Force decided not to continue clustering minority student pilots.
In “Black Ceiling,” I said that I didn’t believe that the Air Force of the mid-1970s was ready for a large influx of black pilots, certainly not fighter pilots. I linked that conclusion to the targeted and disproportionate reduction of minority fighter pilots that occurred during the Gen Wilbur Creech era (see “Black Ceiling” Chapter entitled the “Great Black Out”).
The Air Force also discontinued the practice of ensuring that there were at least two minority pilots per class, despite the seemingly obvious value in assisting the assimilation of minorities, and the reported value in lowering minority pilot attrition. I don’t know why the Air Force discontinued the practice, but the fact that it did is evident in the survey data that I have gathered from black pilots who attended training in the 1990s.
As you read through the survey responses later in this book (like the ones quoted below), you will see several students referring to the challenges of being the only black student in their SUPT class.
In your opinion, does it make a difference, regarding your success, how many other black pilots are going through training at the same time as you? Why or why not? “HUGE difference. I felt alone.” (1987 SUPT student)
“…because I'm the only black student, I get away with nothing, and I get noticed for everything purely because I stick out. My ability to blend in an all-white class doesn't exist. If I'm late for a brief, screw up a stand-up scenario, fly poorly, am out sick, etc., it will inherently stand out in their minds because of how the brain works. At the same time, if I do really well, it didn't go unnoticed either. I don't know if it carried the same weight, though, and I definitely was never going to get the halo effect. The white students kind of all just blend together, so if someone does something dumb or dangerous, they'll be under the microscope for a bit, then it'll fade. I knew that if the IPs had a meeting about me, they would remember every lacking performance I ever had because I don't blend at all. The human brain would easily recall it as a ‘yeah he's had a history of problems’ or ‘didn't he have this same issue last month/last phase?’” (2005 SUPT student)
In 1990 a group of black student pilots decided to cluster themselves at Vance AFB. Several student pilots from the Air Force Academy class of 1989 all decided to choose Vance AFB base as their choice for SUPT. One of the biggest reasons for this was that General “Fig” Newton was the Wing Commander there, he was the Air Force’s first black Thunderbird pilot. He also went on to become the Air Force’s first, and as of this date only, black commander of a fighter wing in the Continental United States.
The black USAFA graduates felt that they would have a better chance of success in pilot training with a black wing commander. Grasping the underpinnings of their choice is critical to gaining an insight into minority culture. I highlight it because I don’t want my non-minority readers to miss it. It is still true to a large extent in black culture that black people feel they will be treated better by black leaders. Anyone who attempts to gloss over this cultural difference risks missing the chance of coming to a greater understanding of black culture and how black people, in general, view leadership demographics.
In my own experience, and in reading the survey data, it seems that the sentiment that having a black leader is essential to success has diminished among black people over time. However, it was still such an important staple of black culture in 1989 that a group of black USAFA students used it as the determining factor in their selection of a SUPT base. Someone even coined the phrase “have a chance at Vance.” This phrase wasn’t coined in the 1960s or 1970s; this was in early 1990.
In this self-clustering effort by the USAFA Class of 1989, many of the factors that made the Tuskegee Airmen successful were present. The Tuskegee Airmen had the most legendary black senior leader of their generation in Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. In 1990, at Vance AFB, the black students had one of the most successful black leaders of their generation in General Newton.
By clustering themselves together, though in significantly smaller numbers than those who passed through Tuskegee, the black students at Vance achieved enough mass to develop the same type of supportive ecosystem that the Tuskegee Airmen had as a result of segregation, and that had been achieved by the Air Force’s experiment in the 1970s.
Not only did the 1989 USAFA students achieve the same type of supportive culture by self-clustering at Vance, they also achieved the same type of success. Their washout rate was significantly lower than the existing washout rate for black pilots, and their clustering initiative also positively influenced the washout rate of the other non-USAFA black pilots that were students in training at Vance AFB at the same time.
“Besides being grouped together in higher numbers, having people of color in the command structure at each level, IP, Flt Comm, and in our case Wing CC ensured we had people to talk to and also it made others accountable for their actions."
USAFA ’89/Vance 90 Clustering Student
We can look at nature, at something simple, like plants, and easily recognize that each plant needs specific conditions to grow. Some plants need more sunlight. Some need more water. Some need a certain type of soil to thrive. With black student pilots, it is obvious to me that they need just enough students and role models to achieve a mini-ecosystem. Specifically, enough minority peers and superiors to create just enough support in a majority culture that is not ideally suited to them, in its naturally occurring construct.
Here is the perception of one SUPT student who reported that the Air Force did the reverse of clustering during his SUPT class with negative effects:
“I believe it does, as there appears to be a ‘standard’ the courses are attempting to maintain. A quota if you will. I noticed the minorities (Blacks) in the classes, although starting at the same time, were spaced out accordingly in the classes to facilitate what appeared to be each class having at least one. This did affect how we perceived and received training believing we had to measure up to a higher standard.
2001 Black Male SUPT Student
I can hear the voices of those non-minorities that would say, “Why do we have to do something different for black pilots?” I wish I could point to a case at a pilot training base in which a white student was in the minority. Perhaps at a fictitious base located in an inner-city like Chicago or Brooklyn, where 95% of the students were black, and 98% of the instructors were black, and 100% of the senior leaders were black. In addition, all the tangible, discernible elements of the culture would be heavily influenced by black culture. Perhaps then, and only then, could some of these voices begin to see the importance of what I am talking about.
I recently heard an example of what I’m trying to get at in a discussion of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The discussion was about why Kevin Love, one of the few—if not the only—white players, was struggling. One of the broadcast announcers, a former Cavalier, felt that Kevin wasn’t fitting into the predominantly black culture that existed with the Cavaliers and LeBron James.
I found this fascinating, as it was a rare example of discussing the performance impacts on a white male, simply because he was in a culture where he was the clear minority. From all indications, there were no questions about his skill; he was an All-Star player.
It fascinated me because a big deal was being made of something that black Air Force officers face on a daily basis, and black student pilots to an even higher degree because of their demographics and the Air Force’s SUPT assignment practices.
I believe the sequencing and assigning of black SUPT students in a manner that best contributes towards their success is a piece of “low hanging fruit” for the Air Force’s senior leadership. The success of clustering was demonstrated in the 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, and again in the 1990s. This small change would not require a great investment in cost, nor would it create a great upheaval to the Air Force’s existing culture—especially given the small numbers of black pilot training students in any given year.
The quote from the Air Force Chief of Staff below shows that the Air Force is considering clustering again. In my opinion, this is an easy and quick win for its fighter pilot diversity efforts:
The Air Force’s pilot shortage crisis offers “an opportunity for bold moves” to build the service’s diversity while correcting the growing deficit in aviators, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Wednesday at the conclusion of a daylong summit on the problem. Those moves might include grouping minority pilot trainees together at flight school in order to have a built-in support system… (Tirpak, 2018)
Low Hanging Fruit: Flight Training Experience Prior to SUPT
There is a factual and undisputable discrepancy between the success of minorities and non-minorities as USAF pilots; data from 2004 to 2010 revealed that minorities were twice as likely to fail to complete UPT than their majority counterparts (Ruffin, 2017).
The failure rate of minorities in USAF pilot training is well chronicled. This failure represents a huge dollar loss in training invested and is one of the single greatest reasons the Air Force senior leader diversity landscape looks the way it does. An investment in flight training prior to SUPT makes sense from a financial stewardship viewpoint; it will also generate early interest in aviation amongst minority youth.
The validity of providing flight training before entry into pilot training is one that the Air Force senior leadership can glean from its own history. Several times in its history, the Air Force has used an external source to provide initial flight training for future pilots before entry into its formal pilot training program. Efforts along these lines are low-hanging fruit that have proven successful since the formation of the Army Air Corps.
I have pasted in a discussion from “Black Ceiling” of two programs, conducted over 60 years apart, that provided flight training prior to formal pilot training below:
“I believe one of the great lessons that I have learned from the study of Tuskegee Airmen was that they benefitted from President Roosevelt’s decision to fund the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). In 1938 President Roosevelt created the CPTP as part of the Civil Aeronautics Act that provided pilot training to 20,000 college students a year. CPTP provided 72 hours of ground school and 35-50 hours of flight instruction at facilities located near eleven colleges/universities. Most notably, the CPTP included Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). As CPTP participants, Tuskegee Institute, Hampton Institute, Virginia State University, and Howard University, helped open the doors for the first African-American military pilots.
I think this one recommendation alone would significantly decrease the Air Force’s washout rate for minorities and non-minorities in undergraduate pilot training as well as help mitigate the socioeconomic disadvantages minorities have as they are not likely to be exposed in high school to flying training and the academics related to the fundamentals of flight which is a significant factor of the AF Officer Qualification Test (AFOQT) that plays a huge factor in pilot candidate selection.
It makes sense on a surface level that students who had flying instruction prior to SUPT would have greater success in SUPT. That’s just as true today as it was for the Tuskegee Airmen. Prior flying experience should directly correlate to greater success in SUPT. Increased flying experience for cadets will also have an impact on candidate scores on the pilot/navigator portions of the Air Force Officer Qualification Test (AFOQT) and the Pilot Candidate Selection Method (PCSM). Increased scores are important because AFOQT/PCSM scores are key factors in the selection of cadets for pilot training.
It also stands to reason that cadets who have been afforded opportunities to fly would return from the experience with increased levels of motivation. The increased levels of motivation would likely be expressed in their military and academic performance—both selection factors for SUPT. Finally, increased experience prior to pilot training will also make the student pilots more comfortable while in training at SUPT and better able to absorb instruction from the instructor pilot. In effect, the student is able to learn more because the ‘firehose effect’ has been lessened.
Could a CPTP-like program be constructed for today’s cadets in ROTC? Absolutely. While I was conducting the Defense Business Board study in 2003, I learned of a CPTP-like program called ‘FAST’ (Flight Awareness Summer Training). The FAST program, administered by SAF/SB (Small and Disadvantaged Business Office), was originally designed as a 10-week program to provide FAA pilot licensing flight training to rising senior AFROTC cadets under the sponsorship of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other Minority Institutions (MIs). FAST was originally conceived to address the washout rates of minorities. However, FAST was funded primarily ‘out of hide’ from SAF/SB and its end-of-year dollars and never funded by the Air Force Corporate Structure. This lack of funding resulted in the program being trimmed to 3 weeks of training, greatly reducing its potential impact. FAST also conflicted with Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) training activities that included field training and Initial Flight Training (IFT). Since FAST was never embraced by senior Air Force leadership, there was never a forcing function to resolve the conflict with IFT. FAST training had a significantly lower cost per student than IFT, and FAST graduates would likely not need IFT. When I spoke to AFROTC officials, I learned that since so few AFROTC cadets become pilots, there wasn’t a lot of room in the program to ‘make room’ for something like FAST. This issue would have been an issue for the AETC/CC and possibly CSAF to resolve if FAST had been recognized for what it was, an inexpensive way to provide additional flying training to minority cadets with the end goal of reducing the SUPT washout rate.
I was amazed that a small office such as the Air Force Small Business office could build a program like FAST. It selected African American and Hispanic Institutions with AFROTC units, with locations near airfields, worked out cross-town arrangements for ground school instruction, built logistic support agreements, came up with funding, and actually started putting minority students in the air. Unfortunately, the Corporate Air Force could not find funding for such a small program, and SAF/SB finally ran out of its ability to fund FAST in April of 2006. When the director of SAF/SB left, the program ended, and there was no official tracking done by the Air Force on FAST graduates to see if they indeed had a statistically lower washout rate. It was as if the program never existed.” (Thompson, 2016)
I don’t know what the training cost per student in SUPT is and whether it would be a clear winning tradeoff or not to invest in something like FAST or CPTP for all students, minority, and non-minority, before pilot training. However, I have learned from Lt Col Kenyatta Ruffin, one of the Air Force Chief of Staff’s lead pilot diversity program managers, that the Air Force has begun plans to fund a FAST-like program called ACE (Aviation, Character, Education).
ACE will be a three-week flight program conducted by the Air Force in partnership with Delaware State, one of the original FAST locations. This summer program is designed to motivate and mentor minorities and women to pursue Air Force Aviation careers. This investment is a very encouraging step in the Air Force’s efforts to build its own pipeline of minority aviators.
The hope is that the Air Force would find a place for this new flight program in its budgeting process and strategic diversity planning efforts. The building of a diverse pilot pipeline should be one of the Air Force’s strategic initiatives. If not, the Air Force runs the risk of repeating the failure of the FAST program, failing to fund it over the long term.
This program could be like other Air Force diversity-related experiments I have referenced that have taken a quick-fix approach but never made into the Air Force’s strategic plans. History has shown that the Air Force’s diversity experiments don’t last. One of the great tragedies of the FAST program was that its funding was so short-lived that the director of the program could not track its impact. He had to shut down the program, due to lack of funds, before the students who attended FAST completed their pilot training. Therefore, there was no way to quantify the impact of the FAST training (FAST Student SUPT graduation rate vs. other minority students)—as there was no office left in place to track it!
The Air Force has an elaborate planning programming and budgeting process that is greatly affected by its strategic plans. Until programs like this receive funding through that process, they will continue to be “experiments” and have no lasting impact on the Air Force’s diversity landscape.
The Air Force used to include a 36-hour flight training program as part of ROTC. My interview with 1960 SUPT Bill Norwood is a peek back in time to what used to be commonplace in the Air Force’s preparation of its future pilots:
Ivan: You said in college, you went through the Air Force 36-hour flight training program. What was that? Was that ROTC, or was that...?
Bill: That was ROTC. At that time, if you were in pilot training, the government or Air Force paid for 36 hours of flight training. And I was in that program for 36 hours. That's during your senior year before you go into the Air Force. I had a real good instructor. He was tough but good. And I tend to work hard; I tend to study after I have a class, or after I had a training ride. I would go study, and I’d decide what I did well, what I did poorly, and before I went out the next time, I would review it. So, when I got toward the end, I had a book of what I had done well, what I had done poorly. So I didn't make the same mistakes.
Ivan: Got you.
Bill: So I soloed in five and a half hours.
Ivan: So it means that that thirty-six hours was ample time to get you to solo before you went into pilot training.
Bill: Well, no, it wouldn't necessarily get you… well hopefully get you to solo.
Bill: OK. And I think most people did solo. Most people were soloing between 10 and 15 hours, or 10 and 14 hours. And there was one African-American, the one that went to Moore with me; we were there together, and I'm sure he soloed. I was the only one to get a private license, so I got my private license in thirty-three hours.
Ivan: OK. Wow. OK.
Bill: I took my private pilot check ride in 31 hours.
Ivan: Now, this 36 hours was not unique to your ROTC detachment; it was something that was common to all ROTC detachments at the time?
Bill: Yes, it was common. It wasn't something that was special. I think it was common to universities that had flight training programs.
Ivan: OK. Do you happen to know when they did away with that? Did they do away with that before you got out of the Air Force?
Bill: I have no idea.
The Air Force has recently announced that it has “has launched a pilot program” for “select AFJROTC cadets” who “will attend an accredited aviation program at one of six partnering universities to get a private pilot license.” (Berube, 2018) Though the Air Force initiated this test program “to help address the Air Force’s ongoing aircrew shortage,” it will accomplish the goal of giving the 120 students selected the advantage of flight training before taking the AFOQT and before attending SUPT (Berube, 2018).
Providing flight training before SUPT is exactly what FAST and CPTP did. Ironically, an Air Force/AFJROTC partnership was deemed “impossible” at the time of the 2003 Defense Business Board study.
The only concern I have is that if the Air Force sees this program only as a way to address the aircrew shortage, it will end the program when the shortage is resolved.
In “Black Ceiling,” I showed that a significant portion of the AFOQT consisted of instruction on the dynamics of flight and flight instrumentation. Students going through a program like the recently launched AFROTC program will have a distinct advantage, not only when taking the AFOQT, but also in SUPT, compared to students who had no previous flight hours, ground school, etc.
It is my assessment that this early exposure to flight training is what makes a minority student, or any student for that matter, “better-qualified” to become a pilot. I make this distinction in the hope of further dispelling or toning down the resounding mantra that a better-qualified minority student is a student with a higher GPA or SAT/ACT score.
It is likely true that a student with a high SAT/ACT score might fare better in learning the dynamics of flight and airplane instrumentation. However, he/she would likely not have greater success on the AFOQT or in SUPT than a student with relatively lower SAT/ACT who had the advantage of being exposed to the principles of flight in ground school, or who had gone even further, taking flying lessons or gaining a private pilot’s license.
I worked closely with Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum in Compton. Its minority students broke world records by soloing helicopters and planes and completing cross-country flights at the ages of 14 and 15. These same students amazed the Boeing C-17 simulator operators by successfully landing the aircraft in the simulator multiple times. Though some of these students were the cream of the crop academically, most of them were not.
Many of these students added type ratings and were flying professionally by the time they were 18. I believe I could take these same students, or other similarly skilled graduates from youth aviation camps across the country, and pair them against other minority and non-minority students of the highest academic caliber. If the other students had no prior instruction in the principles of flight, there is no question in my mind who would have the higher AFOQT scores, or who would fare better in the initial instruction phase of SUPT.
The Air Force has the capability through the continued use of programs like the AFJROTC partnership that it decided to fund, to both identify and create its own pipeline of qualified minority pilots.
One other lesson that the Air Force can glean from in history is the success to be gained by partnering with black aviation professionals in the civilian community. The civilian-military partnership described below helped significantly influence aviation history:
In 1938 Cornelius Coffee established the Coffee School of Aeronautics in Chicago. This highly-regarded Flight Training Facility produced hundreds of black pilots. When the US government launched the CPTP (Civilian Pilot Training Program) in 1940, the Coffee school was the only non-University/College Affiliated facility in the nation to be approved to participate. Many of the graduates, as well as some of the instructors, went on to become Tuskegee Airmen. (Flying Beyond The Barrier Memoirs by Forty African American Airline Pilots, 2015)
The CPTP partnership with the Coffee school helped fuel the pipeline for the greatest generation of black pilots the Air Force has ever seen—the Tuskegee Airmen. I believe the Air Force should pursue a partnership with the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) and organizations with a similar focus. Their joint goals would be to attract minority youths towards aviation careers and to increase the number of black pilots entering commissioning programs with some level of flight training (ground school, flight hours, private pilot license).
The following quote is from Lt Col Robert Ashby, an Original Tuskegee Airman (OTA). He describes a partnership between Tuskegee University and the Army Air Corps. In this partnership, Tuskegee provided ground training and initial flight instruction to Army Air Corps cadets before the formal flying training they received from Army Air Corps.
“Because they said blacks didn’t know how to fly, and they didn’t know anything about it. So, they never really went out to check to find out if there were any blacks and where they were and all that sort of stuff. But that came up when the CPT program started at the various black colleges, and Tuskegee was the main one because they had a pretty good environment there. And blacks came in with CPT and taught individuals to fly. Like Chappie James, he went through CPT at Tuskegee. And there were quite a few other individuals Roberts, (Spanky Roberts) he went through CPT. I would say the first maybe ten or fifteen classes they went through CPT. They learned how to fly before they came to Tuskegee Institute, where the primary training took place. The primary training was learning how to fly the old PT 17 and PT 19 aircraft. All of this happened right there at the Tuskegee Institute with black instructors. But when they went over to the Air Base, when you graduate from primary and went into basic you went to the Air Base. And there were all white instructors there. The white instructors continued instructing at the Air Base until there were sufficient pilots coming from back from overseas and from Europe, and they came in and gradually assumed the role of instructors. And we got rid of all the white instructors.” Lt Col Robert Ashby (OTA)
As I was conducting research for the Defense Business Board in 2003, I saw that OBAP had partnered with the Tuskegee Airmen (TAI) chapters to conduct ACE/aviation camps to generate interest in flying amongst minority youths. This was part of their solution to fix the pipeline shortages for the airlines. I asked the Air Staff representatives at the time about following OBAP's example.
The Air Staff reps at that time made it seem like it was impossible to partner with OBAP, TAI, or even AFJROTC to put more youth in the air, stimulate an early interest in aviation, and put minority youth in a better position to be successful in pilot training. Here are quotes from two black pilots, one a fighter pilot, who benefited greatly from OBAP’s youth programs:
“I have fulfilled my goal to be an F-16 fighter pilot in large part due to the support I received from the Tuskegee Airmen and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) and participation in their programs starting at the age of 13. Through their continual support, I earned several FAA pilot licenses prior to attending the USAF Academy and continue to be inspired by these groups and individuals today. As demonstrated by my efforts in high school and at USAFA, I have always had an intense passion for teaching flying to others and helping them achieve their goals. Yet, through my experiences as currently one of only ~20 African-American fighter pilots and less than 200 total African-American pilots (out of ~2200 and ~11,000, respectively) in the Active Duty USAF, I have grown to appreciate the need to focus on increasing minority pilot success in the USAF…
Early Exposure: Studies have proven a wide disparity between the age of initial interest and/or pursuit of an aviation career between minority and majority demographic groups. In general, these studies indicate that the majority demographic both becomes aware of and pursues an aviation career in the early teenage years (or younger), while minority groups are in the later teenage years and even early 20's. This creates vast differences in knowledge, experience and familiarity with aviation operations, training processes and the like; this gap has to be overcome in a very short period of time during UPT. A corollary theory not specifically developed for this issue, but still relevant is known as "start behind, stay behind." Both the lack of early exposure and this theory suggests that individuals with less preparation do not reach the same level of achievement as those more adequately prepared.” (Ruffin, 2017)
“I had an FAA pilots license before going to Air Force pilot training. I earned my private pilot’s license while in college at a local airport the summer between my junior and senior year. I paid for it with a loan. The training was handled by a private flight school and was fun and challenging to me. I learned all the intricacies of the physics and math involved in flying, studied weather phenomena, and learned all the rules for flying across the country……the environment, though, was a self-paced one. And one that I paid for and one that would not end until I’d reached my goal, or decided this wasn’t for me. Another reason this worked out well for me is that the screening program the Air Force had at the time, using mostly civilian instructors, was notorious for weeding out Air Force pilot candidates…and word on the street was that it was sometimes unfairly. I felt that it was significant leg up that I’d received my license privately in the civilian world, because once I entered pilot training, by the grace of God, I was able to understand the basics a little better.”
(1989 SUPT Student).
I recently learned from a senior OBAP official that a few years ago the Coast Guard Academy and OBAP signed a memorandum of understanding in which OBAP provides candidates for the Coast Guard Academy’s summer program “AIM.”
Successful AIM graduates then become candidates for the Coast Guard Academy or its prep school. OBAP students are not promised slots at the Academy, nor are they promised the opportunity to fly after graduation. However, the possibility of becoming a flying officer is enough to motivate many OBAP students. How much greater would the motivation be for OBAP students attending the Air Force Academy, where the possibility of becoming a pilot after graduation is multiple orders of magnitude greater?
If the Air Force had a similar partnership that offered slots in its Summer Scientific Seminar, it could begin to fast-track the application process for minority students who meet the SAT/ACT score and GPA criteria. The USAFA minority admissions staff could then assist the qualified minority student attendees with the admission procedures for USAFA, or its prep school. The Air Force could also assist minority students in making connections with ROTC and Reserve Recruiters if USAFA was not their preferred commissioning source.
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