In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first African-American woman licensed to fly an airplane. Her dream was to inspire others like her who were barred from U.S. flight schools because of racism and sexism.
But 100 years after the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France certified her as a pilot, her dream remains one largely deferred.
According to labor statistics, as of 2021, only about 150 of the 158,000 pilots and flight engineers in the U.S. are Black women, just one of many acute social disparities in the field of aviation that Leon E. Haynes III wants to fix.
Haynes is the CEO of Pittsburgh-area nonprofit Hosanna House Inc., which this spring unveiled The Center for Aviation Technology and Training, in partnership with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.
The aviation center is intended to introduce children of color to the aviation industry “to stimulate career opportunities that help build a foundation of financial security,” Haynes said in a release.
The facility, built at Hosanna House’s new Sherwood Event Center in Wilkinsburg, just east of Pittsburgh, features a makerspace — a workshop filled with tools and components to stimulate STEM learning — and flight simulation lab, and interactive children’s exhibits such as a flight trainer, a play table with a scaled model of a working airport, and a praxinoscope, a late 19th-century device that gave pictures inside a spinning cylinder the illusion of motion.
Programs will include STEM education for young children, drone technology training for teenagers, and specialized training for high schoolers preparing to attend aviation-related courses at institutions like the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics, Community College of Butler County and Hampton University, a historically Black school in Virginia.
“We are thrilled to help create experiences that are both innovative and inclusive,” said Jane Werner, executive director of the Children’s Museum. “Our work with Hosanna House Inc. allows children and families to explore hands-on learning in informal settings and build skills that help them make an impact in the Pittsburgh region and beyond.”
Hosanna House also partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum to bring the “Black Wings, American Dreams of Flight” exhibit to the aviation center to help launch its own Tuskegee Airmen Museum, devoted to showcasing “the contributions of Black and Brown pioneers and leaders in aviation.”
The museum has a growing collection of World War II and aviation artifacts, including a pilot’s flight suit and gear, a real propeller and nose cone, autographed items owned by Tuskegee airmen and more.
“Once the students see people who look like them in these roles and the impact these heroic individuals made in aviation, they’ll realize the sky is not the limit, but their playground,” said Andrew J. Smith, assistant professor at Hampton University.