Thursday, September 30, 2004

Group puts blacks in cockpit

Brown Condor encourages pilot careers

By Maggie Downs
Enquirer staff writer

Through the Brown Condor program, Eric Hill has earned his private pilot's license. He flies this Cessna 172 of Co-Op Aviation out of Blue Ash.
The Enquirer/TONY JONES
BLUE ASH - For John Leahr, it was the 1938 Career Day at Lunken Airport when he was told that there wasn't a place in aviation for Negroes.

For Darrell Newbolt, it was letting go of his dream of flying. He was attending the University of Cincinnati in the 1970s and working full-time to support a wife and two children.

For Ethiopian native Theodros B. Theodros, it was when he came to this country as a skilled pilot. For three years, he drove taxicabs as he unsuccessfully tried to land a job interview with an airline.

All these motivating factors led to the formation of a group called Brown Condor. The nonprofit organization aims to promote careers in aviation, particularly with airlines, among African-Americans.

Brown Condor hopes to educate people about the field while lowering the cost for instruction.

The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't compile statistics on race, but out of the country's 145,000 commercial pilots, national airline pilot organizations estimate that 2 percent are black.

What: Brown Condor is a nonprofit organization that promotes aviation in the African-American community in Greater Cincinnati.
Mission: To introduce aviation-related careers to African-Americans by providing affordable flight training and by helping trainees continue with follow-up training.
Plans: Brown Condor intends to run aviation summer camps, visit schools and align itself with national organizations such as the Tuskegee Airmen and the Organization of Black Airline Pilots.
Information: (513) 281-8442.
And, according to the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, 71,000 pilots are employed in the United States by major and commuter passenger airlines and freight carriers. Of those, it says, 674 are black and 14 are black females.

Theodros, now a DHL Airways pilot from East Walnut Hills, wanted to increase the number of black airline pilots by bringing together African-Americans who were either involved in the profession or have an interest in it to help younger African-Americans learn to fly.

The first problem, Theodros said, is lack of exposure to the profession.

"People in (the African-American) community don't talk about it; the kids don't even dream about it," he said.

Another hurdle is the cost. That's where Brown Condor comes in.

In May, the group bought interest in a Cessna 172 through a partnership with Co-Op Aircraft Services, a fixed-base operator at the Blue Ash Airport.

While a flying student will still incur some costs, he doesn't pay the hefty fee of hourly plane rental. It's the equivalent of a parent allowing a teenager to drive the car as long as the teen pays for gas.

The average expense of one hour of flight time is $114, including the airplane and instruction. For a pilot in the Brown Condor program, that cost is $59 per hour - $37 for the airplane and $22 for instruction, done by a standard, full-price instructor. It takes a little more than 40 hours to receive a private pilot's license.

To fund this venture, Brown Condor had to raise enough money to help several students at a time. Members gathered about $30,000, most of which came from the founders' pockets.

The organization was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in Ohio in 1996. But the idea was shelved soon after because of a lack of participants and money.

The group decided to give it another go this year, prodded on by Esaias Liggett, 26, of Dry Ridge, who desperately wanted to fly.

"I can't imagine anything better," Liggett said.

The group's name comes from John C. Robinson of Gulfport, Miss. Nicknamed "The Brown Condor," the African-American pilot gained fame flying for the Ethiopian Air Force during the Italian invasion in 1935.

Tuskegee veteran

The backbone of the organization is Leahr, an 84-year-old Tuskegee airman. During World War II, the 992 Tuskegee airmen were the U.S. military's first black fighter pilots.

At the time, the general belief was that blacks did not have the capacity to become pilots. The airmen, however, gained fame as the only fighter unit not to lose a bomber they escorted.

Leahr, of Kennedy Heights, logged more than 1,000 hours flying military aircraft, half of them during combat. He still harbors anger about the treatment he and his fellow airmen received when they returned home from the war.

"No airline would hire a black pilot, even though we were well qualified," he said. "I vowed if I could ever do anything to get a young black person into aviation, I would do it."

Newbolt, 50, of Pleasant Ridge is an engineer at Cincinnati Bell. He came on board with Brown Condor after years of coaching basketball teams on the West Side.

"Even though I was touching those kids' lives, I realized we have to give more back to our young people than just sports," he said. "It's time for us to stand up and be accountable in the community for our own."

Newbolt remembered how he once wanted to become a pilot. He let his dream go to care for his family.

"The way I felt about flying then is how much I want to open that door to other people now," he said. "My goal is to enlighten children's minds. Get them into a control tower for a tour, then get them into flight school."


To date, eight local pilots have participated in the program.

That includes Liggett, who once wanted to become an astronaut. Without 20/20 vision, however, his dream evolved into flying for an airline.

"I would probably still be working on my license if it wasn't for Brown Condor. I'd still be saving money," said Liggett, who now has a commercial pilot license with instrument and multi-engine ratings and an instructor's license. He flies cargo in a Convair 580 with a company out of Lexington.

Eric Hill, 34, of Hebron also found hope through Brown Condor.

Hill was a child who obsessively built model airplanes and wanted to grow up to be a pilot, but found little encouragement from teachers.

"They told me I could never do something like that," he said.

Then Hill met Liggett, who encouraged him to get involved with Brown Condor.

Now Hill trains on Brown Condor's red-and-white Cessna 172. On a recent afternoon, he tried out some maneuvers - a power-on stall, a power-off stall, steep turns and recovering at unusual attitudes. He has his private pilot's license and is working on his instrument rating.

Each time someone like Hill steps into the cockpit, the Brown Condor members feel as though they've come a long way.

"If we keep going, I know more will come," Newbolt said. "There will be planes in the sky, and our people will be there."


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