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.
“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
Similarly, many of The Tuskegee Airmen have said they were eager to discredit a 1925
“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.
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
“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
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 @ WashingtonTimes.com. 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.