Thursday, January 1, 2015

Helping angels earn their wings

In 1975, Rev. Russell White, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, was moonlighting as truant officer at New Jersey's East Orange High School. Every day he'd round up kids cutting classes and drag them into school where they'd be suspended. One day he told the kids they could do anything, even fly a plane. They didn't believe him, so he took them to Morristown Airport Flight School, where friends who knew him gave them a deal on flying lessons. He named his group the Eagle Flight Squadron. He got them military surplus flight suits with yellow ascots. "Treat them like pilots, dress them like pilots, and they become pilots," he said. To stay in the squad, students needed a B average or better in school. One of White's best remembered comments is, "Get a C? See ya!"

For 20 years the squad met Thursday evenings in a church basement, until the city offered White abandoned Fire House No. 4, which was very run down. The kids refurbished it, and used the extra space to learn close-order drill, which they sometimes perform in local parades. Ground school classes were taught on the upper floor, plus math, English, writing and life skills. On weekends older students had lessons at the airport with a flight instructor.

Rev. White and his Eagle Squadron

By 2013, nearly 300 former high school truants had graduated,  and nearly all went on to college. Many, like Joseph Hayes, became commercial pilots. Hayes is a First Officer with Continental Airlines. "I am indebted to Rev. White," Hayes said. "Without him, I would not have a pilot's license. I'm also grateful for the wisdom he passed on by emphasizing to study, as well as never lowering your sights in a society where race sometimes puts you at a disadvantage."

No comments:

Post a Comment