FLIGHT Act looks to attract minority pilots to the skies

Penny Kimani, a senior at Delaware State University, believes that a FLIGHT bill backed back by Sen. Chris Coons and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester could bring more minorities in for flight training at historically black colleges and universities, such as DSU. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

DOVER — When U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., looks inside the cockpits of aircraft soaring through the skies, he notices a void of Black pilots behind the controls.

He, along with other lawmakers, are working on changing that.
Sens. Coons and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Reps. Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., have introduced a Defense Authorization bill called the FLIGHT Act, which hopes to provide new resources for ROTC students at historically Black colleges and universities and minority institutions, with special emphasis on support for flight training. The bill passed the Senate on Thursday.

The House of Representatives also passed similar language in its own Defense Authorization last week.

“I am proud and encouraged to see the FLIGHT Act on its way to becoming law,” Sen. Coons said in a statement. “Now more than ever, we are reminded how vital it is that our leaders, our guardians and our role models reflect the diversity of America itself. Our service members come from all walks of life, but people of color remain underrepresented at the military’s highest levels.”

The bill will encourage minorities participating in ROTC to pursue flight training opportunities, such as the training program offered at Delaware State University, which operates a fleet of 21 aircraft out of Delaware Airpark in Cheswold.

That, said Roger Kruser, assistant flight instructor at DSU, would be a great thing.

“Personally, I think it’s a great idea,” Mr. Kruser said. “Anything to get more pilots into the world. We’re desperate for pilots in the industry, and a lot of things have happened in general aviation that kind of dried up the pool of pilots that used to come from thousands of little airports all over the country.

“We’ve gotten to the point where (university and college flight programs are) probably the last avenue for somebody to get into the professional pilot career field.”

Black people are also underrepresented in American military leadership — particularly at higher ranks and in high-investment, training-intensive specialties like aviation. As a whole, the Air Force is almost 20% African American. However, only 1.7% of Air Force pilots and less than 3% of civilian pilots are Black. Similar asymmetries affect other branches of the Armed Forces.

“Today’s military aviators will become tomorrow’s best-trained commercial pilots,” said Sen. Coons. “Our current officers in uniform will become our policy experts, our CEOs and often our political leaders. The FLIGHT Act is just one of many steps we must take to ensure that those who lead our country also fully represent it.

“I thank and congratulate my colleagues on this victory, and I look forward to working with them to put FLIGHT into action in Delaware and across the country.”

Aspiring military aviators can significantly improve their career prospects with undergraduate pilot training, but ROTC scholarships do not cover flight training costs. This makes it more difficult for low-income students to become pilots.

The FLIGHT Act establishes two pilot programs, with the goals of:
• Lowering the barriers to ROTC participation for students at HBCUs and minority institutions. Many ROTC students at HBCUs must commute to host institutions for classes — often over long distances. This bill would provide funding and resources to mitigate that inconvenience, in part by encouraging partnerships between the institutions and nearby military bases.
• Supplementing flight training costs for ROTC members enrolled at HBCUs. While these funds can be used at commercial flight schools, priority is given to students who would also receive their flight training at HBCUs.

Penny Kimani, a senior student worker and aspiring pilot with DSU’s Aviation Program, said the bill could provide unlimited opportunities for minorities interested in reaching for the skies.

“I think it’s especially important because there’s not a lot of pilots of color, so I think if we would be able to get proper funding, we would be able to flight train a lot more Black pilots,” Ms. Kimani said. “We could expand our fleet (at DSU), we could get a bigger hangar, and we could get more students and increase the capacity of our current program.”

Ms. Kimani added that many Black people overlook aviation when it comes to a job opportunity.

“I definitely would recommend (flight training) because I think that we need to expand our horizons, and I feel like a lot of the career choices that we have are currently limited and not a lot of minorities know that they have the option to fly,” she said. “They just think if they want to do something impactful then they have to be a doctor or a lawyer … but you can make an impact as a pilot, too.

“The aviation industry is so big, and it touches people’s lives in many different ways. It’s not just the airline side. There’s crop-dusters, there’s cargo, there’s medevac, there’s maintenance people and flight attendants and air traffic controllers, so there’s really not a part of the world that aviation doesn’t touch.”

Ms. Kimani added, “If people understand, I think they’d be more willing to enter the aviation industry and make it grow even more.”