(CNN) — First Officer Courtland Savage was boarding a United Express flight to Bentonville, Arkansas, and heading towards the cockpit when a passenger handed him bags to put in the overhead locker.
“I immediately felt angry, but I knew I couldn’t be angry. I knew I had to just smile and say: ‘Hey, I’m not the flight attendant, I’m the pilot’ and then proceed to the cockpit to fly the plane.'”
For Savage, who is Black, changing preconceptions about being a pilot is key to diversifying the aviation industry.
“Now, next time he gets on a flight, it might not be such a surprise to him that you can see a Black man in the cockpit.”
Savage — who said to friends and family in 2008, aged 17, that if a Black man became president, he’d learn to fly a plane — wants to change the misconception that operating an airplane is a job only for the White and wealthy.
His aim is to bring more young people into an industry who may not think they have a place in it.
Fly for the Culture is one of several organizations and programs seeking to improve aviation’s grim diversity statistics, spotlight the current inequality ingrained in the industry and provide a community for those working in an industry where they don’t always feel that they fit in.
Roadblocks to progress
For many young people, becoming a pilot seems not only out of reach logistically, but completely unimaginable.
“No one is really exposed to the aviation industry from the inner cities,” says Romello Walters, a student pilot based in Philadelphia.
The organization was advertising a scholarship for free flight instruction, asking keen applicants to detail why they wanted to be part of the aviation industry.
Walters entered — “I put it all on the line in the email,” he says — and he was picked.
Now, alongside his pilot training, Walters helps run Fly for the Culture’s social media accounts, actively working to up representation of Black aviators and encourage other young people to follow in his footsteps.
“My love for aviation is very real, but I have a way bigger love for just giving people the vision of what is possible,” Walters tells CNN.
“Young people don’t believe that they can do it until they see someone like themselves doing it,” adds Savage.
Romello Walters, pictured, is an intern at Fly for the Culture and is working towards his private pilot’s license.
Courtesy Fly for the Culture
You Can Fly includes an aviation-based STEM curriculum for US high schools. Executive Director Elizabeth Tennyson says more than 8,000 American teenagers are currently enrolled in the program, which lays out foundational groundwork to help break down some of the barriers to entry.
AOPA also offers scholarships for high schoolers with a passion for flying, alongside scholarships for those a little further along in their training.
“Something I always tell people who are interested in becoming a pilot is that much of what they’ve heard about being a pilot is probably not true,” says Tennyson, who says she never realized flying was a career option growing up, and then learned to fly in her twenties.
“You do not have to be a math genius. You do not have to excel at physics. All you have to do is put your mind to it, and study.”
Still, while scholarships such as those offered by Fly for the Culture and AOPA work to break down barriers, the financial roadblocks to becoming a pilot remain weighty.
Earning a private pilot’s license in the US costs about $10,000. Becoming a commercial pilot requires 250 hours of flight time.
Romello Walters, who is currently working towards his private pilot’s license and dreams of being a commercial captain or flying his own plane, says his progress has been on and off due to funding — with Covid-19 complications only causing more difficulty on this front.
“Flight schools that used to be able to guarantee loans after you got accepted into their programs, they’re not now,” he explains.
While routes to becoming a pilot differ in different countries, and different financial aid is on offer, the expense factor is pretty universal.
“Almost as a starting point, there is a financial barrier to entry,” says former Royal Air Force pilot Sean Jacob, who heads up FTA Global flight school in the UK.
Jacob describes how some students will fund their education through a pattern of working for a period to earn money for training, flying for a few months, then going back to work to raise more funds.
Jacob says FTA Global is working with other flight schools in the UK to look to the British government to help aid trainee pilots and fund other routes into the industry.
For minority pilots who overcome the barriers presented by lack of representation and finance, qualifying as a pilot does not mean the struggle is over.
C. Angel Hughes, an active duty US military pilot, started flying when she was 16, but says it was over a decade before she worked directly with another Black female captain.
Although statistics state Black women are a minority in the aviation industry, Hughes knew there were other pilots like her experiencing similar ups and downs.
“So I kind of made it my mission to seek them out so we can form a network,” Hughes tells CNN Travel. The aim, she says, was to then use this network to encourage other women to enter the aviation field.
Hughes, left, founded Sisters of the Skies to create a community of Black female pilots.
Courtesy Sisters of the Skies
Hughes, who regards many of the members as her mentors and advises other women in the group who are newer to the profession, calls the group her “safe space.”
When she started training, and later when she began working professionally, Hughes was struck by how many of her White, male colleagues had got into flying because a father or grandfather had paved the way.
“Aviation has kind of been in their blood, so they were exposed to aviation, since they were kids, essentially,” Hughes says.
Some of her Black pilot colleagues had a family member who’d been part of the Tuskegee Airmen [a group of Black military airmen who fought in the Second World War] but most African American aviators, says Hughes, are carving out a path untrodden by generations before them.
“Even though we both have this passion for flying, we are fundamentally different,” says Hughes of her White legacy colleagues.
“When a class would pair off into small groups to study, no one wanted me to be in their study group,” she says.
“Most oftentimes I’m the only girl in the class,” she adds. “You just tend to go towards your peer group and those who look like you. That’s just human nature.”
For Hughes, this only underlines how important it is to go into schools, speak to kids and change their preconceptions about flying.
“They’re amazed that I’m a pilot and I’m like, ‘Yes, there are pilots out there that look like me and that look like you.'”
Being able to connect with other Black women who’ve experienced some of the same challenges and obstacles has also been integral for Hughes, which is why she believes strongly in the importance of mentorship.
“There are going to be times when you feel alone, when you feel as if nobody can understand what you’re feeling or what you’re going through at this point, but the fact that you have a mentor — or when I have my mentees — you’re not alone,” she says.
As a growing nonprofit, Sisters of the Skies now offers flight training scholarships and a bi-annual day camp called Girls Rock Wings — aimed at young women aged 10-18 years old, offering a day of exposure to the aviation world.
Sisters of the Skies is a community of Black female pilots working together to diversify the cockpit.
Courtesy Sisters of the Skies
While outreach work and scholarships offered by Sisters of the Skies or Fly for the Culture can have real impact, Hughes thinks aviation companies also need to actively work to diversify the industry.
Many aviation companies are increasingly recognizing that it’s not just about engaging minorities in aviation or hiring more Black or female pilots, it’s also integral to look after and listen to minority employees.
This conversation forms part of a global discussion that’s increased in recent months following the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests that took place across the world.
“With this recent push for diversity and listening in the workplace and other things of that nature, we’ve got a surge of clientele that have come to us and they want to support us,” says Garden.
Garden says the pandemic “forced the world and society to actually see what was going on” and people have become more engaged with conversations about the need for societal change as a result. “You didn’t have so many distractions to keep you away from it.”
He says he hopes this surge of interest in diversity in aviation — and the US workplace more generally — is long lasting, and not just a fad.
“I want it to stay there and sustain and grow. And that’s part of my push to make sure that happens.”
C. Angel Hughes says important conversations are happening through the aviation industry but stresses the importance of not just recognizing the wider problem but finding out how individual employees are being affected.
“We are in a unique environment now where Black people or people of color feel as if our lives are less valued than others,” says Hughes.
“I think at the very least — and I’m speaking from a Black woman’s viewpoint — it’s so simple to just walk up to a person and ask how they’re feeling, if they’re being affected, and then just take it from there.”
Courtland Savage says Fly for the Culture’s next steps are founding a flight school.
Courtesy Jim Schmid Photography
Covid-19 has also created a strange landscape for current and trainee pilots.
Many pilots are on furlough or unemployed as flights remain grounded. This disruption comes as the industry faces a long-term shortage of pilots.
“A lot of airlines and air carriers have furloughed a lot of pilots. Some of those pilots may choose to never come back to aviation and go on and do other things. There have also been a lot of early retirements. So, the pilot shortage has been deferred, not solved,” says AOPA’s Tennyson.
The upside of this, suggest Tennyson, is it offers an opportunity for a “reset” in the industry.
“Hopefully, we will start seeing an increase in diversity, not a decrease,” she says.
Christian Cunningham, a recent aeronautical studies graduate from Kent State University who is also interning with Fly for the Culture, describes the industry as “resilient.”
“[It] will definitely return to normal just as it did after 9/11, and when that happens hopefully the diversity will be at the highest it’s been,” Cunningham tells CNN.
In the UK, where even fewer flights are operating than the United States, Sean Jacob of FTA Global is similarly optimistic about a more diverse aviation future.
“In order to gain your commercial pilot’s license, you’re looking at a training time of up to two years. And in two years’ time, I think it’s going to be a very, very different landscape. And those jobs will be there and the demographic in the cockpit, I think, is going to change quite dramatically.”
Savage, who flies United Express flights on behalf of United Airlines, says he is thankful to have avoided redundancy, but he’s still feeling the impact of Covid-19: his pay has been cut by 30% and his flying time has been severely curtailed.
Still, he continues to encourage young people to train to fly. His next step for Fly for the Culture is to purchase an airport and start a flight school.
“It’s not slowing me down from inspiring,” he says.
“We can create our own training facility and pump out pilots — and while we’re pumping out pilots, we’re pumping out minority and women pilots,” he says.
“So, we’re killing two birds with one stone. We’re giving you diversity. And we’re also filling those slots that are going to be there in two to three years.”