Compton kids learn to fly after school
By Sonya Hamasaki, CNN
Compton, California (CNN) - On a sunny afternoon at Compton Airport, 9-year-old Jose Pineda runs across the tarmac and makes a beeline for a single-engine Cessna.
He's completely at ease –- clearly in his element –- laughing and joking about a special celebration coming up. A birthday. He runs his hand along the side of the plane and walks underneath the wing, clearing it with a foot of headroom to spare. He swings open the door and climbs into his seat on the left side of the plane -- the pilot’s seat.
Pineda carefully checks the instruments on the console. He picks up a two-way radio to talk to some "grown-ups" who run air traffic control. His seatbelt clicks and he's ready for takeoff. That's right, Pineda is a pilot; a "veteran," he tells us. He’s been studying aviation since he was 6.
Inside the hangar, Pineda's friend, Tasneem Khatib, is also preparing to take to the skies. At 11, she off to a bit of a late start.
And then there’s 16-year-old Keilyn Hubbard, dressed to the nines in a navy blue pilot's suit. Sure, he’s at least old enough to drive, but he's also training for his first solo flight.
Just who are these kids?
They're not child actors filming a movie about kids who fly. Nor are they privileged child prodigies who set aviation records.
Jose, Tasneem and Keilyn are part of a unique afterschool program for inner city youth offered by Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum in Compton, California.
Here, hundreds of children – as young as 5 – are learning how to fly. They learn about aerodynamics, math and science. They’re coaxed to sit in helicopters and play with the gears, and they practice flying on flight simulators until they're ready for the real thing.
"Being up in the sky, being able to stand next to (the planes)....you can't do this every day as a normal person," Jose says. "It takes courage and bravery to be up in the air that high."
He wants to be a commercial airline pilot when he grows up. "I want to be a doctor and dentist, as well," he says. Here, that kind of talk is encouraged. The sky is the limit.
Robin Petgrave, a pilot and entrepreneur who was inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, started the youth outreach program.
Each of the planes in his fleet is dedicated and named after one of the historical pilots. "That way they will fly with us forever, and their legacy will never be forgotten," he says. Petgrave dedicates his life to the flight school and the children who come here seeking a safe haven.
"The kids come here with all kinds of situations. They're 8-year-olds who have witnessed a murder," he says. "There are demographics and situations that can overwhelm a kid and put them in a position where they have no control, and they wind up part of the criminal justice system. This gives them an out."
To earn flight time, the students must finish their homework, help each other with their studies, and do chores around the airport such as wash airplanes and sweep the hangar.
It's a $500,000 per year program, which is funded by grants, donations and the goodwill of others. Like many nonprofits that were hit by the economic downturn, Petgrave's program is struggling.
"Because of the recent hardships that some of our funding sources have gone through, we've been waiting for four months of reimbursements. We just don't have the cash-flow," he says.
The reality is heartbreaking.
"We got an eviction notice from the landlord, if we don’t get caught up with the $12,000 worth of back rent. An eviction notice. We got a demand letter from one of the financing companies for the aircraft. We have some serious challenges," Petgrave says.
One Saturday in March, the electric company turned off the power after Petgrave couldn't pay the bill.
"The kids made do the best way they could. They did their lessons outside by the aircraft. We used natural lighting to provide the stuff they needed to do the lesson. It's disheartening to me that a program this effective has to struggle," he says.
Petgrave uses his personal money and his family's funds to supplement the program and keep it going. That same month, he lost his home.
"This program, it's bigger than me; it's bigger than my family. Something really phenomenal is about to happen here. We’re working on a program now to make some of these kids astronauts," he says. "If I have to live out of a cardboard box, then so be it."
Petgrave is still looking for his dream champion. "It's the person who wants to come down and donate some time; it's the person who wants to upgrade our website to capture the money better. There's so many ways people can help. They just don't know. That's the problem."
Meanwhile, the young pilots soldier on. Petgrave invites many of the program's alumni to mentor the beginners. They include a young man who became a commercial airline pilot at the age of 19. Then there are the record-setters like Kimberly Anyadike, who became the youngest African-American female to fly solo across the United States when she was 15.
But the stars here are the living inspirations, the visiting Tuskegee Airmen who offer their love and support. Levi Thornhill, 89, is one of them. "I want them to be able to have a shot...you can see the hope in their eyes," he says. “When I first came here about 10 years ago, I was talking to Robin and somebody out on the street pulled up and shot a couple of rounds. To see what the kids did tore me up. The kids hit the deck."
So what does the program give these pilots that they can't get elsewhere? "Hope. Hope. H.O.P.E. Hope to do something they really are interested in," Thornhill says.
Keilyn expects to conquer his first solo flight before the summer is over, and he sees a career with the military in his future. "I already know the basic instruments, the basic maneuvers and the basics of flying," he says. "My long-term goal is to go to the Naval Academy and be a vice admiral for the Special Forces division. There is no limit. I can go above the sky."
"Above the sky" is exactly how Jose feels when he's flying. After taxiing onto the runway (a flight instructor watching his every move), he hits the gas. The Red Tail – named after Tuskegee Airman Thornhill – begins barreling down the strip. Soon, it's floating high above Compton.
"Being in the air, you can't explain with words, but you can explain with action," he says. "If I didn't have this place, I'd be a lazy boy having F's in school. Now, I'm one of the top students in the class. It's like taking baby steps, but now you can run."
*To contribute to Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, visit their website at http://www.tamuseum.org