KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The courage and valor of the first African American U.S. fighter pilots during World War II is impacting future generations of pilots of color in Kansas and Missouri.
Known as the Red Tails, the Tuskegee Airmen faced bigotry and segregation from their own country, but they didn't let it stop them from being the most successful squadron of U.S. fighter pilots to escort U.S. bombers into enemy territory.
Their achievements inspired the name and the mission of a new nonprofit in Kansas, called Red Tail Academy.
"The original Tuskegee Airmen, they started something and we want to carry on their legacy and we want to pay tribute to their sacrifices that they made before us," said Jeff Bolden.
Bolden co-founded Red Tail Academy along with Kerry Gooch, David Toliver, and certified flight instructor John Hall.
Bolden explained that in 2019, less than 7% of U.S. airline flight crews were people of color, and he wants to change that.
Red Tail Academy offers underserved Kansas City-area youth ages 12 to 18 to take flight-training to become licensed pilots.
They also have the option to prepare for a career as a drone pilot, air traffic controller or airplane mechanic.
Bolden said he believes minority youth need more exposure to rewarding careers in aviation.
"They see an aircraft flying above them, but most of them think that's something that's out of their reach and I want to make sure they understand that it's very much within their reach," Bolden said.
Chris Gray, a senior at Sumner Academy in Kansas City, Kansas, is one of Red Tail Academy's first success stories. He was in the aSteam Village Program when the Red Tail leaders came and talked about the possibility of becoming a pilot.
"My love for flying came when I saw the Thunderbirds perform at an air show. It was actually here at this airport," Gray said as he looked around the Charles B. Wheeler Airport in downtown Kansas City.
"It's a lot of responsibility, but it's really freeing, like you get to like fly the plane, like it's really cool, in a way. But it makes me a little nervous at first," Gray said. "But the more I did it, the more I felt comfortable."
After passing his written aviation test and the required flight training hours, Gray successfully completed his first solo flight in June 2020 and earned his pilot's license in December 2020.
This year, he celebrated his 18th birthday and plans to pursue a career as a commercial airline pilot.
His flight instructor, John Hall, is thrilled.
"We're definitely looking to inspire. We want everyone that has even the slightest ambition to believe that they can achieve greatness, they can go far," Hall said.
True to tradition, the back of Gray's shirt was cut out when he emerged victorious from his first solo flight.
His mom, Arletta Gray and his dad, Nathaniel Gray, proudly celebrated the big moment with other family and friends.
"To be able to fly is an amazing thing and I think you should really consider it," Chris Gray said.
"It was a really special day, a special event, just watching and being able to experience the joy that they were feeling for their son as he accomplished that goal," Bolden said.
It costs almost $9,000 for a student to complete the Red Tail Flight Academy course. The total cost for becoming a commercial pilot can range from $50,000 to $100,000. The excessive cost is one thing blocking people of color from becoming pilots.
Matt Miller, president of Little Blue Aviation at the downtown Kansas City Airport, is partnering with the Red Tail Academy. Miller provides simulator training at Little Blue Aviation at a reduced cost to Red Tail Academy students.
"I want to be able to give the youth the same opportunities that I was given at a young age," Miller said.
"There's a lot of great pilots out there. Their parents simply cannot afford the cost of flight training and if we can somehow supplement that and make it easier for them to attain their goals, then we've done a good thing," Miller said.
Bolden is looking for more sponsors and partners to help more minority students enter the aviation industry.
"It takes help. It takes partnerships like with Matt, his company and so many others to make it possible," Bolden said.
Red Tail Academy is recruiting eight students to begin training in April to get their pilots license. Those interested can enroll on the Red Tail Academy website.
Students will work with instructors independently as they get the education and flight training hours to earn their pilot's license.
If you would like Red Tail Academy leaders to talk about aviation careers with various youth groups and and non-profits serving youth, you can make that request on the Red Tail Academy website.
This story was originally published by Cynthia Newsome at KSHB.