VALDOSTA, Ga. --
Aspiring aviators, ages 10 to 19, went where most their age only dream: the skies above their hometown.
Over 60 kids from the Valdosta area participated in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) exhibition during the Eyes Above the Horizon (EAH) diversity outreach program, July 13, in Valdosta, Ga.
“It’s geared toward introducing an underrepresented demographic to the world of aviation and giving them an opportunity to get a hands-on experience actually flying a plane,” said Maj. Aaron Jones, Vice President of Legacy Flight Academy (LFA). “It’s a [free], one-day event sponsored by LFA, which is a non-profit organization.”
The program is designed to remove barriers for minorities and inspire an interest in STEM career fields. To emphasize aviation, pilots from Moody volunteered to provide an introductory flight above Valdosta.
After spending time at stations designed to build leadership qualities and inspire an interest in college and STEM careers the kids hopped into a Cessna 172 Skyhawk and took to the skies. Not only did they get the experience of riding in the front seat of an aircraft, many were given the opportunity to take the controls and fly the plane themselves.
“In my opinion, the best part of EAH is that aviation station because [it’s] the thing that puts the kid in the sky,” said Capt. Eric Johnson, LFA logistics chief. “They’re flying with a pilot but they can fly the plane as much or as little as they want to. It changes their perspective on life.”
“The best part about it is seeing those kid’s eyes when they come off the airplane,” Johnson added. “They’re like ‘alright, this is cool, this is a possibility.’ That’s a story they’re probably going to tell their grandchildren, and we were a part of that.”
It’s not just about making memories, though. The coordinators at LFA believe that introducing kids to a world that isn’t part of their norm expands what they perceive as possible. Jones understands the gravity of being a role model for minorities who want to be what they can’t see, given that African Americans make up less than two percent of the aviation industry.
This year’s event comes 78 years after the activation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, also known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the U.S. Army Air Forces' first African American fighter squadron. Jones says the foundation of LFA draws upon the legacy of those Airmen and their fight against both foreign enemies overseas and segregation at home.
“I think the importance of being able to relate to someone is more relevant than people understand,” Jones said. “People relate more when they see someone who looks like them—or who comes from the same background—doing what they want to do. Being able to communicate with someone on a personal level, in person, goes beyond what you can expect from just seeing it on TV.”
Jones and Johnson agree that diversity is necessary to the growth of STEM fields, and have made it their mission to make sure minority youths are given a proper introduction.
“These are the people who will mold the world and we need kids to know that these careers are a possibility and [that we need] to have diversity within those career fields,” Johnson said. “[You don’t] want to have one [perspective], have some diversity so these kids can have a say in what they’re growing up in and what their kids are going to live in.”
“Diversifying your way of thinking can expand your horizons as far as tackling different challenges from a different point of view,” Jones said. “Bringing in somebody from the outside will offer a different perspective and maybe bring in a new way to ultimately succeed.”
The coordinators at LFA say that’s the goal, to offer a win-win solution: more diverse recruits for STEM career fields (and the Air Force, of course) and a rare opportunity for minority youths to experience the world of aviation.