Despite recruitment efforts, few black pilots land in Air Force, Navy cockpits
By LISA BURGESS | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 22, 2003
The U.S. military is often touted as one of America’s most racially diverse institutions — a haven for blacks looking for a fair shot at advancement. But there is one spot in the armed forces where blacks are few and far between: the cockpits of America’s military aircraft.
About 20 percent of the U.S. military is black, compared to 13 percent of all Americans, according to recently released Defense Department statistics.
But in the two services with the majority of fixed-wing aircraft, the Navy and the Air Force, the percentage of black aviators is very small.
Navy statistics from the fourth quarter of 2002 show that of 8,557 pilots (16 percent of the officer corps), just 185 are black — 2 percent.
And in the Air Force, of 12,639 pilots (also 16.1 percent of the officer corps), just 236 officers are black pilots, or 2.1 percent.
The dearth of black pilots is hardly news. To the contrary, military officials have been aware of the phenomenon for decades.
“We can go all the way back to the 1970s,” to trace the U.S. Air Force’s efforts to increase the black pilot cadre, Brig. Gen. Leon Johnson, an Air Force Reserve fighter pilot and one of the military’s most prominent advocates for recruiting black pilots, said in a February interview.
The Navy, too, has long identified the issue, according to Navy Capt. Kathy Contres, director of Navy Diversity Recruiting Programs at the Navy Recruiting Command in Millington, Tenn.
Yet the U.S. military “hasn’t made significant progress” in getting more blacks flying, Johnson said.
In a landmark report published in 1999 by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness titled “Career Progression in Minority and Women Officers” (the last time the topic has been addressed by the Defense Department), a section on aviation says, “of all minorities, the representation of blacks has remained stubbornly low over the last 15 years.”
But even if the issue isn’t new, it remains important. For one thing, fixed- wing aviation in the Navy and Air Force “is among the largest, yet most selective and prestigious” categories in the tactical operations field, the report said.
“Becoming an aviator can be very rewarding, in terms of both military career progression and civilian opportunities, [and therefore] achieving adequate minority representation in high skill occupations such as aviation is an important indicator of success for equal opportunity programs in the military,” the report said.
But even more important than the diversity goal is the contribution black pilots can make to the military, Contres said.
“We know that everybody brings a wealth of different experiences to the Navy, and we want that maximum diversity — not just in body and looks, but for decision-making,” Contres said in a February telephone interview.
Bringing more blacks into the cockpit “is not just the right thing to do, it’s a business imperative,” Contres said. “The nation’s demographics are changing, and today’s students are tomorrow’s [military] pilots.”
But if Pentagon officials have long agreed that increasing the black cadre is a priority, why are there still so few black pilots in the military?
Is racism at work?
In an attempt to come up with some answers, Stripes spoke to more than a dozen current and former black pilots, military officials involved in diversity recruiting efforts and academic sociologists.
All these conversations pointed to reasons for the dearth of black pilots that are just as complex and emotionally loaded as any discussion of race in America.
One thing seems clear, however: the road leading to more black pilots is long and difficult, and there are no obvious, quick fixes, diversity advocates warn.
Getting more black pilots into the Navy “is a long-range thing,” Contres said. “Immediate results are slow.”
“The solution to this problem will take 20 years, because it’s not just bringing [black pilots] in the front door,” Johnson agreed. “You have to recruit them, retain them, and mentor them to be successful.”
What is not the culprit, apparently, is any large-scale, organized, covert effort on the part of the pilot community to keep blacks out.
Black military pilots who spoke to Stripes all said they had run into isolated incidents of racism. But all of the fliers denied feeling put-upon, disrespected or stymied by their military counterparts specifically because of skin color.
Maj. Tony Whiteside, a black instructor pilot in the transport-tanker track at the Air Force’s 47th Flying Training Wing at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, one of the Air Force’s four basic pilot training schools, said in a February telephone interview that the world of military aviators is, “for the most part, colorblind.”
“There are individuals [who are prejudiced], but they are not a reflection of a whole,” Whiteside said. “For every person who would be an obstacle to you, there are 10 who want to help you.”
Asked whether he’s seen racism in the Air Force, 1st Lt. Richard Jones, another black fighter pilot instructor at Laughlin, said, “No, not really. Nothing that’s been, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Nothing crazy. Nothing glaring.”
In fact, in the 87th training squadron, “I’ve been embraced. It’s been great,” Jones said in a February telephone interview. “Really, I’m surprised by how well I’ve been treated.”
If anyone were going to accuse the Air Force aviation community of racism, it would probably be Daryl Jones.
Jones, a 1977 honors graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., flew F-4 Phantom jets in the Air Force and F-16s in the Air Force Reserves and was nominated as the first black Air Force Secretary by President Clinton in 1997.
But the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee killed Jones’ nomination after Air Force Reserve colleagues testified that Jones lied about his — allegedly abysmal — flying record. Jones denied the charges, but lost the post anyway.
Some observers of the Jones nomination hearing continue to believe that the black pilot’s treatment has had a chilling effect on other black military pilots.
“The strong white opposition to Jones sent a clear message to young black pilot potentials in college that they were not wanted as pilots, or their service would be made difficult,” a researcher familiar with military demographics issues said in a January e-mail message to Stripes.
But Jones, who served in the Florida State Senate and is now an attorney and investment banking consultant in Miami, declined to pinpoint racism as the reason for his rejection.
“No one has ever said to me the reason [the nomination tanked] is that I’m black,” Jones said in a February telephone interview. “I can suspect it, but I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, Jones said, during his entire career as a fighter pilot, “I didn’t ever feel a sense of not being accepted” by his white squadron mates.
Nor did he feel any special pressure to prove himself competent every time he came to a new assignment, Jones said.
“No matter who you are, when you show up in a fighter squadron, that’s the case. And I was happy to deliver. [My competence] was not even an issue.”
All of the black pilots appeared to agree on a theme best expressed by Richard Jones (no relation to Daryl).
“My experience is that people are going to look at you in the pilot world in one way,” Jones said. “Are you a good pilot?”
“If I get shot down, they’re not going to look at me as a black man or a black pilot. I’ll be an American. It will be ‘spilling American blood in Country X.’”
So if outright racism is not at work, what is behind the lack of black pilots?
The roots of the issue are a similar phenomenon that takes place at a higher level: the dearth of black military officers, according to David Segal, a military sociologist at the University of Maryland.
“A really touchy issue that everyone stays away from is the difference in proportion between the blacks in the enlisted and the officer corps,” Segal said in a telephone interview. “And you can’t talk about black pilots without talking about black officers, because in the military, most pilots are officers.”
DOD-wide, just 7.9 percent of all officers are black, according to the most recent statistics available from the Defense Department, which are from fall 2000.
And even that number is somewhat skewed by the Army, which has almost double the number of black officers compared to the other services: 11.3 percent of Army officers are black.
The percentage of black officers drops precipitously in the services where fixed-wing aviators generally hang their hats: As of December 2002, black officers represented 6.7 percent of the Air Force officer corps; and 7.3 percent of all Navy officers.
The principal reason for the lack of black officers — and, as a subset, aviators — Segal said, is the custom that officers must have undergraduate degrees to receive a commission.
“Blacks are less likely than whites to go to college,” and so stand less chance of winning a commission, Segal said.
According to U.S. Census figures, blacks have reached near parity with whites in high school graduation rates, but only 16 of every 100 black kindergarteners graduate from college, compared with 30 of every 100 white kindergarteners.
Selection and training
Once blacks who want to be military aviators make it into college, the manner in which the military identifies, recruits, selects and trains its pilots might be a significant barrier to the stated goal of increasing the black flying cadre, the 1999 report said.
The services draw their pilot candidates from several different sources, including the “Big Three pipelines,” as Johnson called them.
Those pipelines are the service academies; Reserve Officer Training Corps, or ROTC, programs at mainstream colleges and universities; and direct commissioning via the officer training schools.
For both ROTC and academy students, the military selection process for flight school begins in the senior year of college, when selection boards take into account academic performance, leadership, faculty recommendations and extracurricular activities. Students also take a battery of service-specific aviator tests.
The number of flight school slots available in any given year varies, depending on the needs of the services at the time.
Each college or university is allocated a limited number of slots for pilot trainees, Gen. Johnson said, “So even though [candidates are] qualified, they may not be able to go.”
Richard Jones saw that happen to 12 of his best black friends in 2001, during his senior year at Grambling State University in Louisiana (Grambling is part of America’s network of almost 100 formally designated Historically Black Colleges and Universities).
All 13 friends sent their applications to the Air Force’s pilot selection board, but only Jones was accepted to pilot training.
“That was one of my biggest fears — that I would be the only one,” Jones said.
There are other opportunities for servicemembers to get selected for flight school once they are in the military, Johnson noted.
But Jones said that such paths are difficult, and involve serving in a job that might not hold any interest for someone, like himself, whose only goal is the sky.
Rigidly limited slot allocations for ROTC and academy students aside, the 1999 DOD report specifically identified “test score cut-off points” as having a major negative impact on the racial/ethnic mix of flight school entrants.
Black candidates, as a group, score lower than whites on entry tests, but high test scores don’t necessarily translate into good pilots, the report said.
As evidence, the report noted that between 1988 and 1992, 119 blacks were admitted to Navy flight schools.
If a higher Marine Corps standard had been in effect at the time (including a no-waiver policy), 87 out of 119, or 73 percent, of those blacks would not have been admitted, the report said.
But they were admitted, and 70 percent of the 119 students made it through flight school anyway, consistent with the usual washout rates.
The results of that analysis “highlight a trade-off,” the report said: “Many applicants who score below the minimum cut-off point, but are otherwise highly qualified, are likely to perform at almost the same level as those who scored above the cut-off level.”
Or as Daryl Jones put it, “There are a lot of kids who don’t perform academically” who can still be good pilots.
Once in flight school, blacks generally don’t do as well as their white colleagues, according to DOD data.
From 1987 to 1999 (the last time such statistics were available), one out of three minorities washed out of Air Force flight school, versus one out of four white students (the report did not split minorities into further subcategories).
Meanwhile in the Navy, from 1998 to 1992, a total of 3,856 Navy and Marine Corps pilot candidates entered the 24-month flight school. The overall attrition rate was 20 percent, but the attrition rate for blacks was 36 percent.
None of the instructors interviewed for this story had any ideas about why blacks are generally less successful in flight school than whites, except for general observations, such as Richard Jones’ saying that “not everyone likes to fly upside down at 500 knots.”
But one former black pilot trainee, Fred Fayerweather, said that blacks wash out more often because their flight instructors hold them to a higher standard.
Fayerweather, a 73-year-old retired Air Force enlisted man living at the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in Washington and a student pilot in the 1950s, said in a January interview that instructor pilots “have the opportunity to be very, very subjective in ratings.”
What are the services doing?
The military services, Daryl Jones said, “talk a lot about recruiting minorities, but they don’t back it up with action.”
It’s not action that has been the problem, Johnson said. “There have been plenty of programs,” such as the Air Force’s 1997 program at Delaware State University, another Historically Black College and University.
The summer program prepares minority students to go back to their ROTC units with the skills and motivation to pursue a successful career as an Air Force pilot. The Air Force even pays for students to take their private pilot’s exam.
What is a problem, Johnson said, is keeping the programs going, and coordinating various efforts among different parts of the services.
“We’re really working to institutionalize” black pilot recruiting efforts, Johnson said. “That’s what wasn’t happening in the past.”
The institutionalizing began in the spring of 2002, when the Air Force chief of staff called a four-star summit on the progression of minorities in the Air Force, Johnson said.
The pilot issue was specifically addressed at the meeting, which was attended by all of the service’s four-star generals, as well as the leaders of every Air Force command.
As a result of the conference, Air Force leaders are planning to locate more would-be pilots via several avenues, including junior ROTC programs, Johnson said.
“We are looking at an initiative to look at target communities for these kinds of programs,” he said. “It’s not specifically pilot development, but it exposes children to the Air Force.”
Meanwhile, aviation magnet high schools — not government-run, but a possible spot for junior ROTC programs, along with the Air Force’s community outreach programs — expose Americans of all ages to the service, Johnson said.
The Air Force is also working with the International Black Aerospace Council, which is an umbrella organization for the seven major U.S. associations that are devoted to black aerospace, including the Tuskegee Airmen, the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, the U.S. Army Black Aviation Organization, and others, said Johnson, who is on the board of directors of the IBAC, and vice president of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Contres’ Navy office also works with groups such as the Tuskegee Airmen to identify conferences and seminars where Navy pilots can make appearances, she said.
Navy recruiters go to about 10 black professional conferences each year, along with dozens of college career fairs. And at the high school level, the Navy attends about 10 events specifically with black schools each year.
The Navy doesn’t just trot out its full-time recruiters for these events, Contres said.
Instead, Navy commanders order pilots to take a few days away from their operational squadrons to travel to classrooms and conference halls, Contres said.
“The pilots come in their flight suits and tell fun sea stories, and talk about flying, and answer questions,” she said. “We go to a different squadron each time” to tap pilots to speak, she said.
“It’s a great working relationship” with the commands.
In addition to pilots-as-spokesmen, another successful touch the Navy recruiters have recently employed at recruiting events is to bring an F-18 Hornet flight simulator to the conferences, Contres said.
“It’s very popular,” she said. “People try it, and they begin to think, ‘Hey, maybe I could do this.’”
At the college level, one of the Navy’s most successful black pilot recruiting efforts is the Baccalaureate Degree Completion Program, Contres said.
The program brings full-time college students into the Navy as E-3s, with full pay and benefits and the potential to move as far as E-5, and keeps them in school until they graduate. After graduation, the students are commissioned as officers, sent to officer candidate school, and, for would-be aviators, to flight school.
There are about 480 students in the program at any one time, and the Navy pays special attention to promoting its existence at the Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Contres said.
While the BDCP “is not just for aviators, one of out biggest sellers is [the potential for] pilot training,” Contres said.
Like the Air Force, the Navy is also in the beginning stages of an intensive, high-level push to recruit more minority officers, with a special emphasis on the pilot community, Contres said — although the sea service isn’t coordinating with the Air Force “because we’re in competition for pilots, frankly.”
Since 2000, the Navy has held quarterly “diversity summits” headed by the Navy’s Chief of Personnel and attended by representatives from the Navy’s various communities, including aviators.
On Aug. 12, 2002, Rear Adm. George Voelker, head of the Navy Recruiting Command, sent out a policy statement calling the recruitment of minorities, “the Navy’s No. 1 recruiting priority,” Contres said.
Toward that end, the Recruiting Command has contracted with Global Hue, a Warren, Mich., advertising agency that specializes in campaigns targeted at the black community, to study the issue of what does or doesn’t attract black Americans to Navy careers, Contres said.
The report, which Contres said should be completed in March, is not targeted just at aviators. But its broad conclusions will give Navy leaders some guidance on how to develop more effective pilot recruiting campaigns as a follow-on project, Contres said.
Stripes editor Pat Dickson contributed to this report from Washington.