KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When you fly, you see color, but some local pilots say one color is missing from the cockpit.
Travis Hayes, a member of the nonprofit Black Pilots of America, is an airframe and powerplant airplane mechanic with inspector authorization and a licensed pilot. But finding a mechanic who looks like him is hard to do.
“It’s probably because of the difficult process to get the inspector authorization license,” Hayes said.
He’s been working on planes for about 40 years, and he can fly them, too.
“At first I wanted to mechanic on a helicopter or airplane and I got working on them, and then I decided I needed to fly it also,” Hayes said.
Many Black pilots in and across the Kansas City metro come to Hayes to get their planes inspected.
“I’m confident in my work,” he said.
But you wouldn’t know that because there’s only a handful of Black people who own or operate a plane.
“I’ve landed at airports, and I get out to get fuel and to go use the restroom and the fella putting the gas in the airplane would be looking around the airplane,” Hayes said. “I asked him what he’s looking for, and he said he’s looking for the pilot.”
But Hayes is the pilot, a private pilot. He served in the military to learn how to fly and fix planes for free.
“I love it all,” said Makeda Hawk, a Black Pilots of America member. “I love preparing for it, checking the weather, taking off, doing the navigation, just all the things that encompass flying.”
Hawk’s takeoff was different from Hayes’.
She went to aviation school in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she paid for her wings. She’s now a commercial pilot for a major airline, which is extremely rare.
“When you’re not going through the military and you’re doing it the way I did, like the civilian route, its very expensive,” Hawk said.
Both Hawk and Hayes are now part of Black Pilots of America in Kansas City. It’s a nonprofit flying organization geared toward educating kids, especially Black kids, on aviation.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020 only 3.4% of pilots and flight engineers were Black.
“I think that’s the biggest problem is that kids of color don’t know that it’s something they can do, that it’s an opportunity for them,” Hawk said.
The Kansas City chapter of Black Pilots of America is trying to change the narrative and clear the runway for Black boys and girls.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit talked with students at schools about aviation and volunteered with the U.S. Experimental Aircraft Association in the Young Eagles Program where kids could see the planes in person and go for a ride.
“The first flight for a kid is probably the most important,” Hayes said. “They may take it and run with it and go get their airline license.”
After all, as kids we’re told to shoot for the stars, and many of us have a natural curiosity of the sky.
These aircraft professionals of color hope more people who look like them have the chance to get there.
If you or your child is interested in the local chapter of the Black Pilots of America, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.