To increase diversity within the military aviation field, United States Senator Chris Coons D-Del. and other lawmakers have introduced the Fostering Leadership and Inclusion by Growing HBCU Training (FLIGHT) Act.
The FLIGHT Act, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, was passed by the Senate in late July.
Overall, African-Americans make up 20% of the Air Force but only 1.7% are pilots in the Air Force and less than 3% are civilian pilots, according to Coons.
The Flight Act aims to “supplement flight training costs for Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) members enrolled at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).” Additionally, it will “lower the barriers to ROTC participation for students at HBCUs and minority institutions.”
“You’ll note that there are very few HBCUs that have flight training programs,” said Dr. Tony Allen, president of Delaware State University (DSU). “But those that do, like Delaware State University, would be a significant benefit because that will help a number of our ROTC students consider the aviation program as a real opportunity. It also extends itself with respect to training for military flight training as well as civilian training. The delegation that put this Act together was really thinking about how to increase the higher ranks of military executives of color.”
According to Allen, DSU has the “largest fleet of aircraft among HBCUs and is documented to be the high quality and low-cost provider of commercial pilot training in the United States.”
As of 2017-2018, flight training costs at DSU are $49,972. At other institutions such as Bridgewater State University, for example, fees are $57,333 while costs at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University reach $91,200, a DSU chart reported.
DSU’s aviation program was established in 1987. For years, the program continued to fly planes from the 1970s. However, in 2019, the Delaware Higher Education Economic Development invested $3.4 million into the program, which covered the cost of new aircrafts.
“What that enables us to do is not only secure thoughtfully the safety of our students but also give us an opportunity to double our program by 2027,” said Allen. So, we hope to grow both on the pilot side and aviation management offering perspective. We think that with that infusion and the Flight Act, we expect to see many more students choosing aviation as a career path.”
Over the years, DSU has looked at ways to build their aviation pipeline. For example, for those interested in aviation, DSU offers a free 30-minute ride in an airplane with an instructor to gain flight experience.
According to Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Michael Hales, director of aviation programs at DSU, there have been at least 25 students drawn into the aviation program by the first flight opportunity.
“That’s usually the first time that any of them, especially minority students, have seen an airplane up front, been to an airport,” he said. “Even if they traveled on airlines, this is the first time, usually, that they’ve been up front in the cockpit and then have actually flown the airplane and controlled the airplane outside of a virtual simulator or something like that.”
Additionally, last year, over 20 cadets attended the eight-week Air Force Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps hosted at DSU. The summer academy aims to recruit high school students to eventually pursue a career in aviation.
“The more you can start folks early, particularly young people, beginning to dream about the prospects of actually flying and then you can take them through a process where they get that experience before they get to college is going to make them much more likely to want to choose that course study,” said Allen.
Hales emphasized that creating a more diverse military aviation field also requires exposure.
In kindergarten, he remembers going to a fire station, learning about the equipment and being able to play with the horn and sirens on the firetruck.
“Every kid wanted to be a fireman after that,” he said. “Those are early memories. So, by exposing those kids early time in their life, when they are formulating those memories and those experiences, but we expose them to aviation. That’s where we really can plant the seed.”
Additionally, schools can also expose students to professionals in the field that look like them, according to Hales.
“Seeing [a minority female] for the first time at a high school or even in a middle school can make a huge impression walking around in that uniform and they’re like, ‘hey, you can do this,’” he added. “Most minorities have never seen or been exposed to someone who looks like them doing these kinds of things. That is one of the things we try to do at DSU. That is one of the things that the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps really should be doing, too.”