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Ready for Takeoff: Compton Program Inspires Black, Brown Youths To Dream of Aviation Careers

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Demetrius Harris of Compton, California, says he still remembers the moment two Black pilots welcomed him onto a commercial flight when he was young, leaving him with a lasting impression of the heights he too would someday be able to reach. 

“There was something powerful about seeing two people that looked like me doing extraordinary things,” he shared, per USA Today.  

Now, he’s a contract pilot for a private owner, flying luxurious multimillion private jets like the Gulfstream GIV and Hawker 800XP. His childhood dream became a reality and with the help of fellow Black aviation professionals and aircraft mechanics, he aims to help Black and Brown children make their aspirations reality, through the formation of Fly Compton Aeronautical Education Foundation Inc. (FCAEF).

“People of color make up less than 3% of all aircraft pilots and flight engineers in the aviation industry,” Harris says.

The nonprofit program, formed in 2020, allows Black and Brown youths aged 8 to 18 the opportunity to get a head start and train to become a pilot.

“I wanted to do for minority youth in South Los Angeles what those two African American pilots did for me,” Harris says.

A nine-month flight training program, the curriculum includes FAA-approved instruction used in flight schools and university aviation departments, as well as real-life scenarios pilots may face, so as to truly understand aeronautical theory, not just what’s needed to pass a test, says the flight school founder.

“Our mission is to introduce Black and Brown youth in and around the Compton, California, community to the aviation industry and the many opportunities that it can afford them while also contributing to the diversification of an industry that has long been exclusive to individuals of a higher economic status,” Harris says. 

Because COVID-19 is still running rampant in the greater Los Angeles area, the weekend program alternates between Zoom classes and on-site training. Students fly either a Cessna 172N called “Kim” or a Piper Cherokee nicknamed “Billie Jean,” conventional flight-training aircrafts. 

Those aged 15 or older are able to graduate to an advanced program that grants students additional ground and flying time as well as the chance to train with a certified flight instructor in their start towards their aviation career.

“We are proud to be a resource and a guide to the youth in our community and to ensure that we are doing our part in helping to improve the statistics of minorities in the pilot workforce,” said co-founder Ronnel Norman, a 20-year aviation veteran and Alaska Airlines first officer.

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