Some early black aviators had to go to France to learn to fly because of discrimination at home, historian Theodore Robinson told a Congressional Black Caucus Transportation Braintrust subcommittee yesterday.
In some ways, he said during yesterday's hearing at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, things haven't gotten much better.
Several panelists agreed, telling the subcommittee that discrimination remains among factors keeping young blacks out of aviation careers. They also blamed economic barriers and a lack of role models.
Rep. Earl F. Hilliard, D-Ala., chaired the hearing, in which black pilots, educators, scientists and transport officials discussed strategies to help more African-Americans into aviation careers.
It was the first hearing of the aviation subcommittee of the Braintrust, whose mission is to use congressional power to influence transportation policy on behalf of minority communities.
Fewer than 1 percent of America's commercial pilots are black, said Ed Moon, chairman of the human relations subcommittee of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots.
He said Congress should use mail-delivery contracts and other federal contracts and grants to encourage aviation organizations comply with federal set-aside requirements for minority participation.
"Nobody's really going to change anything until they're pushed," Mr. Moon said.
Nathan Sanders, manager of equity systems for Northwest Airlines, said his company sponsors minority internship and scholarship programs -- but only because it was forced to do so by a class-action lawsuit.
Airlines are "tremendously sensitive" about their public image, he said, and black consumers should boycott companies that don't promote minorities.
Blacks also must lobby their congressional representatives to land more federal grant money for aviation education programs at historically black colleges and universities, said lawyer and pilot Robert Goodman.
In 1993, he said, $30 million designated for FAA airway science education grants was returned to federal coffers because no one had asked for it. This grant program, which includes money for courses at 12 historically black colleges and universities, is under review and could be eliminated without a grass-roots lobbying effort, said Dr. Frank Enty, director of the National Transportation Center at Morgan State University.
Another problem, said Warren H. Wheeler, head of WRA Inc., a passenger, cargo and charter service based in Richmond, is economic.
"The cost of learning to fly is very high," he said. Basic training for commercial pilots costs more than $25,000, in addition to a college education.
Role models also are key, several people said.
"Someone has to interest the youngsters in going into flying," said James A. Hurd Sr., a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and president of the Eastern region of the Tuskegee Airmen.
James Timothy Boddie Jr., a retired USAF brigadier general who heads NASA's Aircraft Management Office, said most Americans wouldn't recognize a photo of U.S. Marine Corps Colonel Charles F. Bolden Jr., the black who commanded the space shuttle Discovery on a mission this month. The media, he said, ignored Col. Bolden in favor of the shuttle's first Russian passenger.