Tuskegee NEXT, a nonprofit dedicated to helping disadvantaged youth explore the field of aviation, used the Downtown Island Airport Aug. 28 to let young people experience flight.
The daylong Young Eagles rally allowed kids ages 7-17 to take a 30-minute flight and participate in other activities with Tuskegee NEXT and Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) pilots.
Participants watched a drone demonstration, learned about weather and traffic patterns and eventually took to the air.
Tuskegee pilot Fairlyn Hurt, a recent MTSU graduate and flight instructor, led a small group of children on a ground lesson and safety briefing before the first group of students boarded the planes.
Marcus Mallory Jr., a 16-year-old Austin-East Magnet High School student, had a shy smile on his face after his flight.
“I felt like I was free falling,” said Mallory, who has loved toy planes since he was little and wants to be a pilot one day.
“They told me to do well in school and get my flight hours.”
Eight-year-old Amherst Elementary student Maxwell Dorsey was excited to tell his dad about his first flight.
“They moved my seat up so I could reach the pedals and instruments,” he said.
Tuskegee NEXT was named in honor of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. Founder Steve Davis is based in the Chicago area but grew up in Knoxville and took his first airplane ride almost 50 years ago at Downtown Island airport.
He is also president of GEM Community Development Group, the organization proposing the new multi-use stadium development in East Knoxville.
“I want to do something to help my hometown,” said Davis, whose father was a World War II veteran. “I want to show young people from Knoxville that they can have an exciting and fulfilling career in the aviation industry.”
Davis, an aviation history buff, heard there will eventually be a 10,000-pilot shortage. He wanted to do something about it and launched Tuskegee NEXT in the Chicago area six years ago.
“We have had 55 come through and 47 that are now pilots,” he said. “I moved to Chicago 40 years ago and wanted to help provide an alternative to gun violence. According to a recent Brookings Institution study, the majority of economically disadvantaged African Americans will remain so, and a large plurality of middle-class African Americans will see their economic prospects decline over their lifetimes.”
Davis, who has eight children, said two of his sons are pilots, one a flying doctor.
“I want to pay tribute to the truly great patriots, who loved their country more than (their country) loved them,” Davis said.
When Davis launched Tuskegee NEXT, eight of the original Tuskegee airmen attended their event. “They were like royalty walking in,” said Davis. “They flew for their country but couldn’t fly when they were stateside.
“Milton Williams was a mentor to cadets, but he couldn’t be employed as a pilot; he worked as a janitor.”
Organizer Angela Attawia said the timing worked out perfectly for the Knoxville event. “We are trying to branch out and engage the community,” she said. “We hope to start the NEXT chapter in Knoxville in the near future. One of my passions is helping others fulfill their dreams.”
Attawia said the three tiers of Tuskegee NEXT are flight training, life skills and educational assistance, focusing not just on flying, but all avenues of aviation.
“Life skills include resume building, budgeting and goal setting,” she said. Tuskegee NEXT connects students with mentors in aviation, provides assistance with scholarships, tuition assistance and internships (paid and unpaid).
Also at the Young Eagles rally were Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie; Jeannette Mills, executive vice president and chief external relations officer for TVA; and Nikitia Thompson, coordinator of minority and women business enterprises for Knoxville Utilities Board.
“The Tuskegee experiment was planned to fail, but thank God they didn’t fail, they were true heroes,” McKenzie said.
Mills said that even the TVA needs pilots. “We hope that you will consider staying here, and pursuing STEM and technical careers,” she said.
Thompson also shared her final words of wisdom: “Get to know the other students, and lean on them later for advice and support. Do something new and be prepared to feel uncomfortable. Do everything with excellence, and last of all, have fun.”
Pellissippi State Community College was also on hand sharing information about their 15-week noncredit Introduction to Aviation class that will recommence in fall 2022. Eligible students must be age 16-20 and have a minimum GPA of 2.75.
The Ground School lecture-based class prepares students for the FAA basic knowledge exam and can lead to a flight school or college program and flying hours.