DOVER, Del. — At an airpark outside Dover, Delaware, the next generation of American pilots is taking to the skies.
“A student can come here and think, ‘Oh, I could be a pilot,’” said Lt. Col. Michael Hales (Ret.), director of aviation programs at Delaware State University. “We feel like one of the things that we're helping to do is help diversify the aviation industry from the very beginning. We're giving the same flight training that you'd get if you went anywhere else to some of the bigger schools.”
That training can be expensive and cost tens of thousands of dollars. Recently, though, Congress passed a new National Defense Authorization Act and the related FLIGHT Act. It provides new funding for students in ROTC programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, like Delaware State, which boasts a diverse student body.
“I had always had an interest in planes,” said Darrell Muchison, a DSU aviation student.
“It's kind of an adrenaline rush for me,” said fellow student Brooke Desha.
As it stands now, the friendly skies are hardly diverse.
Among commercial pilots, 6 percent are women and only 10 percent are people from communities of color.
In the U.S. Air Force, the number of female pilots is roughly the same: 6 percent.
However, the number of pilots who are minorities is even lower, with only 7 percent, and the number of pilots who are Black is even less at 1.7 percent.
The FLIGHT Act seeks to change that.
“The cool thing about that FLIGHT Act was that it now has language that allows ROTC scholarship holders to not only have their tuition paid for by the scholarship but also the flight labs, which is huge and that's the most expensive portion,” Lt. Col. Hales said.
Without that support, some of the students say it would have been tough to continue on their flight path.
“Once they gave that to me, it was like a blessing, because I don't know how I was going to be able to do it until that happened,” said DSU aviation student Elijah Maldonado.
Many of them are now eyeing a future in the military.
“My goal is to hopefully become a military pilot,” said Soloman Chishti, a DSU aviation student.
“If I am able to get a pilot slot in the Air Force, I want to fly jets,” Desha said.
“My goals are to be a pilot in the Air Force,” Maldonado said.
“My dream is to always be a fighter pilot,” Muchison said.
It’s a diversity of pilots that Lt. Col. Hales said he didn’t see during his 25 years in the military.
“It's important to have someone who you can turn to, who looks like you, and can say, ‘Hey, you know, I did it. You can do this, too,’” he said.
All of it part of working together in the sky, to reach new heights.