While the allure of leisure and fun in the sun will have most Philadelphians high-tailing it to the shore, planning much-needed vacations or enjoying the plethora of outdoor activities this summer, Kawana Love, founder of B. Coleman Black Wings A’eronautique Club, will spend her summer weekends leading a group of inner-city youth down an unconventional path. Love started Black Wings to give young aspiring pilots throughout the city the opportunity to train with experienced aviators and embark on the path to become certified pilots. In addition to helping disadvantaged youth soar, Love plans to usher in a new era in the legacy of black aviation.
The idea for Black Wings came about after Love was talked into taking a flight lesson funded by African Culture Art Forum, a local business. “They really didn’t know what they started,” she says, laughing. “After that flight I felt that life has no boundaries, only the ones … we place on ourselves. So I felt this was the perfect way for [inner-city] children to break the chains of fear and hopelessness.”
Further inspiration came from William J. Powell, a black pilot who founded two aviation schools in the 1920s. “Powell ... wrote a book entitled Black Wings, where he says black people would be more economically empowered if we knew how to fly so ‘black wings take flight,’” says Love. “Although I’m not a school, the students can get prepared for their license; both private and commercial.”
The six-month training program began in May and lasts until November. Students attend class for four hours each week on Saturdays. For two weeks during the month, they attend ground school, where they learn the basics in aerodynamics and navigation. For the remaining weeks, they attend flight school at Spitfire airport in New Jersey, where they put what they’ve learned into practice. The budding pilots are taught and trained by Earl McGuire, a seasoned pilot who once taught in the Primary Flight Program for the United States Air Force. By the end of the program, the kids can qualify to take the FAA test to receive a private pilot’s license.
Love, who is in her early 40s, has overcome her own share of obstacles. Growing up with a single mother who was battling alcoholism, her environment was marred in dysfunction. At 15, she was pregnant with her first child, and found herself homeless and without any support. Love says those experiences sensitized her to the unique challenges youth face today, and led her to want to make a difference in the lives of as many young people she possibly could.
And she has. “I have been through a lot in my life,” says one 19-year-old student who wished to remain anonymous. “I’ve been to different foster homes, I’ve dealt with abuse and I’m homeless right now but the only thing that is keeping me going is the hope of getting my GED and this class. I’m going to be a pilot.”
During their training this summer, students will be engaged in supportive educational exercises, classes and workshops that are meant to build character and inform them of the historical significance of Black Wings. They will also hear from guest speakers. While training is free, students pay a small registration fee and are responsible for purchasing their materials (pilot handbooks and navigation GPS). The remaining program costs are covered by Love’s nonprofit organization Y.E.P. (Youth Entrepreneurship Program). Students come from diverse backgrounds and homes, and are recruited through advertising in local Philadelphia middle and high schools. In order to be eligible, they must be between 14 and 19 years old and able to read, write and do math at an eighth-grade level. Applicants must also be drug-free and exhibit good academic habits. Spots are limited, so qualified applicants are narrowed down based on a first-come, first-served basis.
Love speaks very highly of her students. There are 15 participants enrolled, and this group will be the first set of students to complete the program. Love says she could not be more pleased with their progress. “They’re all so focused and determined,” she says. “Especially one young man who is at the gate 20 minutes early each week with his pilot handbook proudly griped in his hands waiting eagerly to start. I think he is in his element and I’m glad the program exists for him and all [youth] that have a desire for aviation. It makes me feel like I’m contributing something positive to their lives.”
Love’s 18-year-old daughter (also named Kawana) says the program “really builds your self-esteem. Not many people can say they flew an airplane. It has been such a great learning experience.”
The kids will gain lots of fond memories and experiences this summer. For many, the program offers them their first opportunity to step foot on a plane. Love says that for her, “the most rewarding thing is seeing their faces before they get in the cockpit.” She adds that “the expressions on their faces look like they’re thinking they’re never coming back, but when they come back their expressions are like they have gone to heaven and come back a new person. My hope is that every student that attends the B. Coleman Black Wings A’eronautique Club becomes a licensed pilot. More than that, I want them to see that life is what you make of it and the sky is truly the limit.”
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PW's 2015 Philly Spring Guide