FLIGHT Act helps DSU aviation program soar

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester looks at Delaware State University Flight School student T.J Kelly during a press conference for FLIGHT Act’s passage at Delaware Airpark in Cheswold on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

CHESWOLD — If you asked Delaware State University undergraduate Tajay Kelly a year ago why he wanted to be a pilot, his reason would be different than it is now, he said, standing at the Delaware Airpark, celebrating the passage of the FLIGHT Act.

“I would say as a 5-year-old kid in Jamaica, I’ve always loved planes. I’ve loved to travel. And I wanted to visit the world — so I wanted to be a pilot,” he said. “But now I realize that my reason for being a pilot has evolved. I read some disturbing numbers about minorities in the aviation field, both military and civilian settings. … Minorities are underrepresented in all fields of aviation. So now my reason for being an aviator would be to represent my culture and my people.”

Delaware State University President Tony Allen speaks during a press conference for FLIGHT Act’s passage at Delaware Air Park in Cheswold on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Pfc. Kelly, 19, is part of DSU’s ROTC program, and enlisted in the Delaware National Guard, which the FLIGHT Act will benefit by increasing opportunities through the historically black colleges and universities in the country, with the hope of increasing diversity in the military.

The Air Force is composed of about 20% Black airmen and women, but only about 2% of Air Force pilots, and less than 3% of civilian pilots, are Black.

FLIGHT — known as Fostering Leadership and Inclusion by Growing HBCU Training Act — is included in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which funds the Department of Defense.

The act intends to lower the barriers to ROTC participation for students at HBCUs and minority institutions by providing funding and resources to help the many ROTC students who must commute to host institutions for classes. It encourages partnerships between institutions and nearby military bases — like DSU to the Dover Air Force Base.

Rep.Lisa Blunt Rochester speaks during a press conference for FLIGHT Act’s passage at Delaware Air Park in Cheswold on Friday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Its goals are also to supplement flight costs for ROTC members enrolled at HBCUs.

DSU President Tony Allen noted that DSU’s aviation program draws its lineage back “a long time.”

The tails of DSU’s planes are red, in memory of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were a group of Black pilots who fought in World War II.

“What you may not know is that the Tuskegee Airmen were originally a part of six HBCUs in the country, one of which was Delaware State University. We are very, very proud — very, very proud — to continue that tradition and have done so now for more than three decades.”

The university has a fleet of 22, and is the HBCU with the largest fleet of aircrafts in the country, Dr. Allen said.

“We produce more pilots of color than any other aviation program in the country,” he said. “Those things are very important to us. But it still costs a lot to get an aviation degree anywhere in the country and certainly at Delaware State University.”

The FLIGHT Act, he added, helps mitigate that.

“We’re already committed to doubling the size of our program in the next five years,” he said. “We knew we could do that with an increased aircraft fleet and now we’re certain we can exceed that with the FLIGHT Act.”

The FLIGHT Act encapsulates “equity, opportunity and service,” said U.S. Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester.

“Today is the 57th anniversary of the March on Washington. Those are the same principles and ideals that people marched for then and people are marching for today. Equity, opportunity — and just an opportunity to serve, in whatever capacity,” she said.

She added that it’s important to look back on history, turning back to 1939, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law the Civilian Pilot Training Act. The act eventually made it possible women and minorities to gain access.

“And that laid the foundation for the country’s premiere and cutting edge aviators, including the original Tuskegee Airmen,” she said.

Nearly 50 years later, Dr. Daniel Coons “spent thousands of his own dollars to help revive and rejuvenate the aviation program here at DSU,” she continued.

“Since that time the program has soared even higher and higher,” she said. “We know the potential of this program is unlimited.”

Sen. Chris Coons turned his attention to a pilot in training circle the runway a second time before landing at the Airpark.

“It is inspiring to be reminded both how hard it is to land and how important it is to learn and what a key part of training and of the future capabilities of a pilot in training this moment is,” he said.

Looking toward the FLIGHT Act and DSU, he said, this will help open the door for students like Pfc. Kelly.

“In a state with such remarkable potential, in a nation with such incredible human resources at the ready, this is exactly the place where that next generation of pilots of color will be trained and where we will keep breaking through blue skies of great opportunity,” he said.