A black teen longs for the wild blue yonder

As a young black man with a passion for flying, Colin Banks is an anomaly. A senior at South Country Secondary School in Virginia, he has his sights on the U.S. Air Force Academy and dreams of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot.
By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 2009

Colin Banks can talk to you about World War I and World War II planes until you're not interested anymore. He likes to TiVo aerial dogfights on the History Channel. The 17-year-old can't drive the distance from Maryland to Richmond by himself, but he's flown it.

As a young black man with a passion for flying, Colin is an anomaly. The teen, a senior at South County Secondary School in Fairfax County, has his sights on the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and dreams of becoming a fighter pilot.

At a time when blacks have reached dazzling heights -- U.S. president, chief executives of giant companies, even the nation's top astronaut is a black man -- you won't find many in the cockpit of a fighter jet. The cost of aviation lessons, the required educational training and the lack of role models all contribute to the scarcity.

Of the 14,130 Air Force pilots, 270 -- or 1.9 percent -- identified themselves as black, the Air Force Personnel Center reported this year. The percentage is similar for commercial pilots, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Colin has 43 hours of flying time and is weeks away from obtaining a private pilot's license. The journey has taken more than a year. It has involved many trips back and forth to the airfield for lessons. It has meant sacrificing weekends of lounging and video games -- and varsity basketball.

"Young black men aren't limited to basketball or being a rapper," Colin said. "Basketball is a game. Flying is a career choice. It's something I wanted to do for the rest of my life."

On a sunny Sunday afternoon in October, Colin folds his lanky 6-foot-2 frame into a bucket seat in the family minivan. Once inside, he teases his little sister and pinches at the flecks of hair below his bottom lip. Linda, his mom, lowers the volume of an R&B song, and they all settle in for the 45-minute ride from their Springfield home to southern Prince George's County for the day's flying lesson.

Potomac Airfield is a tiny airport nearly hidden by the surrounding back yards in a modest neighborhood. To get there, Linda Banks slows the minivan to a crawl, navigating an obstacle course of speed bumps. At the field, Colin and Linda go over the day's lessons with his instructor: understanding the performance characteristics of the airplane, managing power, controlling airspeed with pitch. The session will involve steep turns and stalls in a practice area in Waldorf, near the Potomac River along Route 210.

First, Colin has to check out the airplane: a 27-year-old Cessna 172 Skyhawk. He runs his finger along the propeller blades, checks the oil level and looks for dings or nicks on the wings. He looks over the flaps and the airbrakes. Once inside with the instructor, he fiddles for the right key and starts up the plane. Minutes later, he's heading for the runway, talking to air traffic controllers: "Potomac Tower, this is 511236 rolling to runway 2-4."

Linda Banks tells the story of how Colin was so pumped before an orientation flight that he couldn't sleep the night before. After another early flight, he threw up. He says it was out of excitement, not fear. He no longer eats before he flies.

As an avid video game-playing eighth-grader, Colin began to wonder if being a fighter pilot could be a real job. He called up the Air Force Web site to check the requirements. "That's when I knew I wanted to do this," he said. "I just grabbed more and more information."

Linda Banks, a project manager at Verizon and a single mother, began to hunt for information, too. "Once he told me he wanted to be in the Air Force -- once I stopped crying -- I looked at different activities for the Air Force."


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