Into America

Blue Skies, Black Wings

Episode Summary

As the U.S. contends with a pilot shortage, HBCUs are partnering with airlines to train a new generation of Black pilots who are ready to take flight.

Episode Notes

Since the advent of powered flight, African Americans have been fighting for a spot in the skies. During World War I Eugene Jacques Bullard made a name for himself as the first African American military pilot. But Bullard flew for the French Foreign Legion – because at the time, the U.S. military refused to train Black pilots. Later, in 1939, the Tuskegee Airmen would go on to win honor and distinction escorting bombers and flying attack missions during WWII, proving the skill and fitness of Black pilots.

Yet, despite the advances of the twentieth century, today less than 2% of pilots are Black, with the high cost of learning to fly acting as a barrier to many. Now, as the nation faces pilot shortages, the airline industry is turning to HBCUs to fill the gap. Major airlines like United, Southwest and Delta have partnered with the schools to fill their cockpits with more diverse pilots.

This week on Into America, host Trymaine Lee speaks to Captain Barrington Irving about his efforts to inspire the next generation of Black pilots and about his barrier-breaking career in the skies. Captain Irving is the founder of the Flying Classroom, and in 2007 he became the first Black man, and the youngest person at the time, to fly around the world solo. We check in with Captain Irving’s mentee, Tremaine Johnson, who’s learning to fly at an HBCU in Florida. And we speak with Captain Irving’s own mentor, Captain Gary Robinson, who began his career at a time when there were even less Black pilots than there are today.

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