Inspired by The Red Tails: Tuskegee Airmen protegee founds flight school for disadvantaged youth

Two black flight instructors, inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, launch innovative free aviation program for disadvantaged youth that will teach aircraft theory and mechanics; and offer flight instructions. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, January 19, 2011 - The legacy of the Tuskeegee Airmen is playing itself out in more places than just George Lucas’ Red Tails, in theaters this Friday. The Tuskeegee Airmen, the 1940s squadron composed of all black men who helped the US defeat the Germans in World War II, is also making its mark through a local flight instructor Wayne Tonkins, who with a former teacher Jonathan Neal, formed a first of its kind aviation program, Outreach Aviation, for disadvantaged youth based in Prince George’s county.

Armed with a scholarship from the Airmen, 23-year old Tonkins, who said he fell in love with flying at the tender age of 15, got ground training and attended aviation school as one of only five African Americans in  a class of over 100 students.

Outreach Aviation Founder Wayne Tomkins in flight. Tomkins and partner Jonathan Neal will launch a flight school this summer for disadvantaged youth. Photo: Wayne Tomkins

“I always had a fascination with flight and the mechanical aspects of airplanes,” said Tonkins who said an interest in an aviation career encouraged him to seek his pilot’s license. His interest shocked his friends.  

“Most of my peers could not relate to my desire to fly, and it only seemed to ostracize me from the rest of my peers,” Tonkins recalls. He said his parents encouraged him, however, to go for it. 

That was also true of Neal, whose father invested the money needed for him to attend flight school, where he too found himself among just four other blacks in the aviation program at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. While he said he had a pleasant experience during his schooling, Neal recalled one professor singling him out to let him know the course load was rigorous and asking him if he really thought he had the tenacity and ability to be able to master the course load. 

Similarly, many of The Tuskegee Airmen have said they were eager to discredit a 1925 Army War College study which concluded that blacks lacked the intelligence, ambition and courage to serve in combat. Neal too did his best to dispel any preconceived notion about his abilities and excelled at his classes. 

“I told him any book you put in front of me, I could pass it. No matter what,” Neal said. 

It was not just his instructors. Neal said he had to prove to everyone, even his family, that he was serious about becoming a pilot. 

“My parents didn’t think I was going to take it too far and assumed my interest in flying was just a passing hobby,” Neal tells Politics of Raising Children. 

The two men joined forces to turn that hobby into a flight school, Outreach Aviation, set to open in the summer for 8th to 12th graders, but taking one-page essay applications starting this March 1. Although there is no minimum GPA requirements, only  those who are at least 17-years old would be eligible to obtain a pilot’s license.  

Flight Instructor Jonathan Neal dreamed of flying in a time and place when it was unheard of for young Black youth. Today, he is set to launch his own flight school for kids to have mentors he never had. Photo: Jonathan Neal

The men hope to use the nonprofit organization, founded in July 2011,  to help fill the void of innovative educational programs in predominately Black communities, which were not available to them as youth.  

Neal,  32, who was born on the Arkansas banks of the Mississippi delta in a small sleepy rural town, said he used to get inspired by  lights of passenger planes flying nearby. 

 “Watching those planes would take me into another dimension of living. That was my fun, my action, my escape, and my dream, “ Neal remembers, though he had no mentors to help turn his dream into a reality.  

“An African American flying a plane was unheard of in my hometown. No pilots as mentors and no such thing as an aviation program for youth,” he added. “In fact, I knew very few who had even traveled on a passenger jet. Being a pilot wasn’t a reality for us.” 

The program which aligns with President Obama’s education reform agenda to foster critical thinking and problem solving, is the first of its kind in Maryland to couple an academics program with actual flying lessons. 

The two men, who met at the A.T.C. Flight Training Center in Fort Washington, Maryland when Neal assisted the much younger Tonkins learning to fly a complex large aircraft, are currently still looking for partners, funders and assistance with site locations, but are ready to take on their first class nonetheless. They will not charge a fee and will offer scholarships at graduation to select students attending college and majoring in math, technology or the sciences.

The program will teach theory, mechanics, and practical aircraft use with a core curriculum in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Even though not all students will enter the aviation field upon graduation, the program hopes to instill certain foundation education in STEM education. 

“I would encourage anyone seeking to become a pilot to not let anything stand in the way of their dreams, and remind them that they are not alone,” said Tonkins who said his first landings while flying solo were the best. 

Neal said he’d encourage children to visit airports, talk to pilots and seek out local schools that offer programs to learn more. 

“Flying gives me an almost indescribable feeling of freedom and exhilaration,” Tonkins shared.  “It also gives me a feeling of pride and accomplishment at achieving one of my life goals and earning the right to soar through the skies and hopefully take my place amongst the stars.” 

Similar, Neal also said of his first flight experience “as soon as you take off solo and there’s no one sitting there next to you except you and God, you say you’re going to take it down one way or the other and you don’t want the latter.

“Flying is absolute bliss. Being in control of something that is a 3D environment where you have up and down, right and left. You’re listening to other pilots and they’re moving around you and you’re transitioning in the clouds. I love the feeling. Everyone should get on board.”

Both men encourage film-lovers to possibly get inspired by checking out this weekend’s premiere of the movie Lucas had to sink $58 million of his own cash into after encountering hesitance from the film industry to finance a big budget action film with an all-black cast. 

Red Tails is also the first feature film directed by Anthony Hemingway, the African American man who previously directed TV hits “The Wire” and “Treme.” The name Red Tails comes from the painted tails that adorned the back of the P-51 Mustangs the Tuskeegee Airmen flew.

Read more Politics of Raising Children in The Communities at the Washington Times. Follow Jeneba Ghatt at @JenebaSpeaks. Her work can also be read at Politic365.  She also co-hosts a Blog Talk Radio show called Right of Black which tackles current events and politics from a perspective not often seen in the mainstream media.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site while authoring her own influential blog which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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