Cheryl Walker

Cheryl Walker, founder of YEES WE CAN, surrounded by the youth in the program preparing for their discovery flights. Photos: Paris Brown

In a special ceremony hosted by Avdyne Aeroservices and the East Coast Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. (EECTAI) dozens of youth were given their first glimpse of aviation with lively introductory flights in the second annual “Flight Day Picnic” at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport on August 28, 2021. The program also featured a number of special guests and presentations, including a few legendary icons who once served in the military as Tuskegee Airmen— namely, George Smith, William T. Fauntroy and Gen. Charles McGee. The event was open to the community, attracted residents from all over Maryland and served as somewhat of a celebratory send-off before children returned to the classrooms for the 2021-22 school year. Aside from listening to remarks from Tuskegee Airmen, enjoying refreshments and additional activities, and having aviation and aerospace science career resources at their disposal, the program’s participants— consisting primarily of youth from the YEES WE CAN (Young Elites of the Eastern Shore West to East Coast Aviation Network) program— had the opportunity to take part in discovery flights.

In simple terms, a discovery flight is one’s introduction to flying. The process typically involves taking short flights alongside a certified pilot or flight instructor, which gives passengers a chance to acquaint themselves with how it is to control smaller aircraft. Unique experiences after this manner are particularly valuable for Black youth— many of whom never imagine flying in a plane or jet due to a number of reasons, from fear of heights to lack of opportunity and resources. The Flight Day Picnic was the first time that the 45 youth in attendance from YEES WE CAN experienced discovery flights. Prior to the ceremony, they have had academics for the last three years but they have not had the chance to fly yet, said Cheryl Walker, founder and executive director of YEES WE CAN. “Today presents that opportunity, and I’m so honored that Mr. Jerome Hodges has made this opportunity available for us, that our youth can now come out and finally get their discovery flight time,” Walker said. “It’s always an inspiration when our youth get to have an opportunity to not only see, but sit, at the feet of our elders, and the elders who have paved such an incredible way for the field of aviation and flight, and opening it up to minorities. “This is a minority group of youth, and they now get to see there was someone 100 years old— or older— who has already done this, the same thing they are now getting an opportunity to do only because they paved the way for that.”

“YEES WE CAN” students range in age from the fourth grade to the 12th grade, added Walker, who grew up as a military child. Some are aspiring pilots and others plan to go into a field of aviation science, be it engineering, computer technology mechanics and a broad spectrum of other related interests.

The Tuskegee Airmen in attendance were recognized during a notable portion of the ceremony. Smith, 94, traced his interests in aviation to the days when he was enrolled in the ROTC program at Howard University. “I think it’s good to give a lot of people the exposure that they need,” said Smith, a native of Washington, D.C., who served in the Air Force during World War II.

Tuskegee Airman in Attendance

Original Documented Tuskegee Airmen in attendance at the event included (l-r), George Smith, Colonel Charles McGee and William T. Fauntroy, Jr. Photo: Paris Brown

Brigadier General Charles McGee, one of the oldest living and highest ranking members of the Tuskegee Airmen, is among the most decorated and distinguished military officers in modern history. McGee was encouraged to see so many youngsters interested in aviation. At one point, he was in their position and hoped to use his wisdom and insight to influence them to achieve at the highest level, regardless of whether or not they choose to fly as a career. “Looking at all these young folks out here, I’m indeed pleased because as a retired Tuskegee Airman, my goal is to help motivate youth in aviation,” said McGee, a resident of Bethesda. “The young folks are our future and we need to be sure that they are mentored and on the right track.”

William “King” Hollis, a motivational speaker and author based in Atlanta, shared words of encouragement with the youth and handed out free, signed copies of his latest book “The Best Gifts Come from the Bottom.” As an alumnus of Tuskegee University, he was humbled to meet and interact with some of the original Airmen.

According to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 3.4 percent of aircraft pilots and flight engineers are Black. Fortunately, Avydyne Aeroservices and ECCTAI recognize how sorely underrepresented Black Americans are in aviation, and collaborated to provide an indelible opportunity to young people.

Youth preparing to take flight

Youth from YEES WE CAN preparing to take flight with volunteer pilot Photo: Paris Brown