As a young boy, Izaiah Brown loved going to a park across from Baltimore/Washington International Airport, where planes approaching the runways glide by so low you can imagine touching them.
It sparked an interest in flying those planes himself one day, an unlikely goal for an African American kid like him, given that just over 3% of pilots in America are Black.
But a new partnership between Alaska Airlines and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where the now 20-year-old Brown is a sophomore, could help put such dreams closer to his grasp.
“I know that’s what I really want to do,” he said. “I’m really excited about it.”
UMES is one of two historically Black universities recently selected by the airline for its True North program. Delaware State University is the other. Alaska Airlines will help fund flight training and provide mentoring and job guarantees for two students at each school.
The goal is to reduce the financial barriers that have kept some Black men and women from entering the field, and offer guidance and representation within a profession where very few look like them.
The selection has generated excitement among students and professors at UMES, which has Maryland’s only four-year, bachelor’s degree program in aviation.
“It’s groundbreaking,” said Willie L. Brown, an associate professor of aviation sciences.
While the program is starting small, both the airline and UMES said they want to see it grow.
“We’re hoping this is a rising tide and others will follow,” said Chris Hartman, assistant professor and coordinator of the aviation program.
Hartman said that flight training can cost $60,000 to $80,000, on top of tuition and other student expenses. Alaska Airlines declined to say how much it anticipates spending on the program, which will be open to students who have reached a certain level in their flight training.
Izaiah Brown, who grew up in East Baltimore, received his private pilot license, which requires at least 40 hours of flight training, earlier this year. He said his mother liked to expose him to different experiences as a boy, taking him camping, to the zoo and the Thomas A. Dixon Jr. Observatory Area across Dorsey Road from what’s now called Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
He soon became less interested in the playground equipment there and more in the airplanes approaching their final descent, as the flight attendants say.
“It’s something you don’t see a lot of people doing. I didn’t know any pilots,” he said.
A football and lacrosse player at Archbishop Curley High School, he caught the eye of some college athletic recruiters but decided to pursue his childhood dream of becoming a pilot. He considered a number of schools before settling on UMES, saying he was attracted to its smaller size and “more one-on-one” instruction.
During breaks from UMES and whenever he can find the time to return to Baltimore, he works at Boutique Air at BWI handling ticketing and other ground duties.
The school has 62 students enrolled in aviation sciences, according to UMES, with 38 in flight training. The rest are on an alternate track for ground-based management.
Brown plans to be among the True North applicants. They will be screened and interviewed by faculty and airline representatives.
The idea for the program came from Black pilots at Alaska in the wake of the 2020 death of George Floyd, the African American man who was killed by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
As outrage over the murder led to nationwide protests, Ron Limes and J.P. Wilson were among the Alaska pilots who began talking among themselves about their experiences as Black men in America.
“I had a couple of days where it was tough to function,” said Limes, who is one of two base chiefs, or head pilot, in Alaska Airline’s Seattle base.
Soon, Limes said, “We didn’t want to just talk, but do something.”
They thought about how little diversity there was in the country’s piloting ranks, and what they could do about that. They developed a plan to “grow and harvest” Black pilots by supporting aviation students, financially and otherwise, and the company signed on to it.
After seeing “the passion the staff had for its students,” Limes said, UMES was selected as one of the first schools to benefit from True North.
Students accepted into the program will serve as flight instructors at UMES after graduation, gaining miles that then will lead to guaranteed jobs, first at a regional carrier, Horizon Air, and then at Alaska. Recipients commit to at least five years with the companies.
“That’s the return of investment,” Limes said.
Wilson, who grew up in Baltimore and Cockeysville, said the program is a way to continue opening up opportunities for younger flyers, as previous generations have done for him. A graduate of Dulaney High School, he remembers how he used some of his baseball scholarship to Francis Marion College in South Carolina to pay for flight instruction.
“It’s my duty to pay it forward,” said Wilson, Alaska’s base chief in Portland. He said he looks forward to mentoring students as part of the program. “Aviation training is tough,” he said.
Hartman said students will sometimes not complete flight training because of the “significant barrier” posed by its cost.
“Sometimes the reality catches people off guard,” he said. “They will get part of the way through the program, and maybe not want to invest more.”
The promise of a job at the airlines could help convince students to stay in training, knowing it will pay off in the end, he said.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for airline pilots, co-pilots, and flight engineers is $160,970. And it’s a growing field, the agency said, with the need for pilots projected to increase 13% by 2030, faster than the average for all occupations.
Other airlines are similarly trying to boost their recruitment, particularly among minorities.
United Airlines, for example, has set a goal to train 5,000 pilots by 2030, with half being either women or minorities. United has been under scrutiny for decades for its lack of diversity in its cockpits, having entered into a consent agreement in 1976 to settle a federal complaint over its hiring practices.
The nation’s 155,000 pilots and flight engineers remain largely white and male, according to the labor statistics bureau. Just over 3.4% are Black, and 5.2% are women. That is up slightly from 10 years earlier, when 1% of pilots and flight engineers were Black and just over 5% were women.
And Black women? A group of Black female pilots called Sisters of the Skies estimates that they make up less than half of 1% of the piloting ranks, meaning young girls of color are even less likely to see someone who looks like them in the cockpit.
The Morning Sun
At UMES, officials said, 16% of aviation students are women.
Stephanie Hartsfield, a member of the Sisters group, had traveled on planes as a child and is a cousin of David E. Harris, the first Black pilot hired by American Airlines. But she never imagined herself becoming a pilot, she said, until winning a contest in ninth grade whose prizes included a flight lesson.
“It got me hooked,” said Hartsfield, now a South Florida-based pilot for American. “I was transported to a place where I felt I was free and in control.”
She ultimately went to the Naval Academy, graduating in 1995, although because of stricter standards at that time for pilots’ vision, she couldn’t become an military aviator. She ultimately joined the Supply Corps, serving on an aircraft carrier.
Hartsfield got her commercial license and worked for several small airlines and, after several detours, landed her post at American.
She and the Sisters group are devoted to “planting seeds” to develop the next generation of pilots through scholarships and outreach programs.
“If you don’t go looking for the needles in the haystack,” Hartsfield said, “you’re not going to find them.”