When Courtland Savage was growing up in Charlotte, being a pilot was among the furthest things from his mind. "I never dreamed of flying," he told me recently. "It just didn't seem like something that ever pertained to African Americans."
But these days Savage, 28, is a commercial pilot who flies United Express-branded flights. He's also the founder of Charlotte-based Fly for the Culture, where he introduces minority youth to aviation by offering free Cessna flights and by arranging tours of airports, maintenance hangars and more.
Savage is far from alone in making efforts to facilitate more representation by people of color in aviation. Sisters of the Skies, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) and the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation are just some of the entities dedicated to the cause. But there is much work to be done.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 2.6% of those employed in the U.S. as aircraft pilots or flight engineers are black. That's paltry compared to the roughly 12.5% of the U.S. population who are African American.
Blacks are also underrepresented in other highly paid portions of the aviation industry. For example, a study conducted by the Airport Minority Advisory Council (AMAC) found that in 2018, African Americans held just 5.6% of airport management positions and 6.5% of airport executive positions.
Lack of exposure is surely part of the problem, AMAC COO Anthony Barnes told me.
But exposure isn't the lone impediment to airline and aviation careers in disadvantaged communities. Access is also a big concern, especially when it comes to aspiring pilots.
Completing a four-year university program along with the flight hours required to fly for a commercial airline typically costs $150,000 to $200,000. The cost can dip under $100,000 for those who enroll in a vocational flight-training school, but students at most of those schools aren't eligible for federal student loan programs. Savage said he likely wouldn't have ever manned a cockpit if his parents had lacked the means to co-sign on a loan.
To their credit, airlines didn't wait until the current nationwide examination of systemic racism that followed George Floyd's death to begin minority outreach. To name just a couple of examples, in February of last year Alaska pledged to quadruple its admittedly tiny contingent of African American, female pilots by 2025 in partnership with Sisters of the Skies. Delta, meanwhile, is a co-sponsor with OBAP of two summer youth programs geared toward increasing diversity in the aviation profession. Airlines also regularly take their outreach into schools.
Still, systemic racism persists in the pilot profession, Savage says. For a short while he was a military pilot, which in terms of cost is the most accessible route of entry into commercial piloting.
Savage's stint as Navy pilot, however, ended with dismissal for substandard performance. But after an investigation, commander of naval air forces DeWolfe Miller III concluded last year that Savage had been subjected to inappropriate conduct by instructor pilots, including giving him a racially tinged radio call sign. Miller nevertheless upheld the dismissal. Savage is now fighting the decision in federal court. To me, he likened the naval air service to a "white fraternity culture."
Still, Savage is optimistic for the future.
"You already have the airlines and the military promoting diversity," he said. "Now you have these events going on in this country. I feel like in 10 years this issue could be solved."