HOUSTON — The Tuskegee Airmen broke down the barriers. Now another group of black pilots, inspired by the World War II fighter pilots, is trying to reach new heights by giving youth an opportunity to explore the world of aviation.
The Bronze Eagles Flying Club of Texas is a recreational group that took flight about 44 years ago in Houston. Many of its founding members, including Dr. Jessie Hayes and Tuskegee Airman Matthew Plummer, are no longer living, but their mission to promote aviation in the black community lives on.
The recent release of Red Tails, a film about the Tuskegee Airmen and their service during war, only helped to solidify why the Bronze Eagles do what they do, members said.
"There was a view in that era, as has been the case in most things, that black people couldn't fly," said Bronze Eagle president Anthony Hall. "Certainly they couldn't do it in an organized fashion and certainly couldn't effectively be combat kinds of pilots, but those myths have been broken down in everything."
The issue now is about exposing youth, particularly black youth, to potential possibilities, said Hall, a Houston attorney. Some youth have never been on a plane, and many have never seen a black pilot behind the cockpit. The Bronze Eagles, through their annual fly-in events and two-week Summer Flight Academy, gives many young people an introduction to aviation.
When the Bronze Eagles was established it was affiliated with the Negro Airmen International, founded by some members of the Tuskegee Airmen. The club later became a chapter of the Black Pilots Association, which it remains affiliated with.
Over the years, the club has expanded beyond Houston to become a statewide organization. It has about 40 core members who come from all walks of life, but a share common bond — a love for flying. They participate in flying competitions, including the BPA's annual Operation Skyhook competition in Pine Bluff, Ark.
They also have fly-ins in which the members fly to a location for fun and relaxation. Every year, they fly to San Padre Island for three days, and for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, they fly to the Caribbean.
"We go out and have a good time," said member Darryl Smith, a Houston engineer. "We enjoy each other. Our common interest is aviation and that's the clue that keeps us together."
The members went as a group to see Red Tails. And, unlike many film critics who panned the movie, they said they enjoyed it and believe the story should have been told a long time ago.
"I was moved by it," said Hall, 67. "I was grateful that at least a part of their story, their history was displayed to more people, to a diverse group of people, more critically to young people of all races. It's important for their history and their accomplishment to be known as a part of America's history."
Smith and Fred Lewis met some of the living airmen in 1992 at a competition in Tuskegee, where the airmen trained. C. Alfred Anderson, the chief flight instructor, and Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the commander, were among them.
"It was amazing, just a roller-coaster ride," said Lewis, 58, a retired school administrator. "When they walk in the room, there's a sense of pride."
The club members want to share that same pride and passion for flying with young people.
Since its inception, the club has sponsored annual fly-in events for youth. Members, many of whom own planes, give children plane rides. Today, it sponsors six fly-in events each year in Houston, Austin, Waco and San Antonio.
The biggest event is held in Houston at Ellington Airport in July.
For the past 40 years, the group also has helped sponsor the Summer Flight Academy, which is run by the Black Pilots Association. The two-week academy teaches 16 high school students ages 15-19 how to fly. The academy moved from Arkansas to Houston about eight years ago and is held at Texas Southern University.
Some participants have become airline pilots and some have gone to the Naval Academy, members said.
Decarla Greaves, who attended the academy in 2007, said she plans to go back this summer to help. Greaves, 21, graduated from Texas Southern University last December with a degree in aviation management and is working to become a commercial airline pilot.
Greaves said the long days of studying and flying at the academy taught her the basics of aviation and prepared her for the written exam to receive a private pilot license.
The Bronze Eagles, she said, are good role models for young people.
"It's very inspiring to see how they're giving back to the community," Greaves said. "They had trials to become black pilots. When you see the effort to let us know we can do it, it's empowering. It makes you ready for obstacles you might face."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com