Getting off the ground
TSU’s aviation program aims for future but lacks equal resources
Second in an occasional series.
If Texas Southern University junior Derek Hudson could describe how it feels to fly an airplane, he’d sum it up in one word: Freedom.
“If you’re looking for a thrill, there’s nothing like being 3,000 to 4,000 feet in the air, and the only person you can rely on is yourself,” said the professional pilot major who has long dreamed of flying.
Texas Southern University is helping produce pilots of color in an industry that is lacking diversity. TSU is also the only Texas public university with an aviation and flight program located in a major hub for airlines. But in recent years, the aviation program has struggled with funding to fit the program’s vision, said Terence Fontaine, a former airline pilot and pilot instructor, who is director of TSU’s aviation program.
The historically Black college in Houston has invested at least $2 million in the program, but the program’s three trainer planes are nearly 50 years old, Fontaine said.
Federal funding will not typically pay for planes or equipment for aviation programs, he said. That leaves the university responsible for those costs.
“We’re woefully needing more airplanes to prepare for students
who want to come to us, and that need is there because the airlines are asking for minority pilots,” Fontaine said.
He added that although the current planes are safe and suffice for teaching students, newer planes would mean fewer maintenance costs. More planes, which are inspected annually and after every 100 hours in the air, would allow the school to educate more students.
“It seems like it would be a wise investment. TSU could be a nest egg for aspiring pilots,” Fontaine said.
The U.S. Department of Education granted the university $280,000 in March to purchase new aircraft. It’s an initiative Fontaine and university officials have been pursuing for at least two years. Still, Fontaine said more is needed.
“Whether it’s federal money, state money or private money, the aviation program is in need to acquire those funds,” Fontaine said.
Texas Southern is working to buy three additional Cessna planes, which will double the program’s fleet.
The aviation funding issue at TSU reflects a broader concern at Black colleges across the country where there is pervasive underfunding and discriminatory treatment by state governments, philanthropists and corporations.
Officials also fear if they don’t expand the program soon, it could be replicated by a larger institution.
For decades, predominately white institutions have duplicated programs initiated by HBCUs, leaving Black college programs obsolete when students flock to better-funded and more wellknown predominantly white universities.
Maryland’s four historically Black colleges — Morgan State University, Coppin State University, Bowie State University and the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore — saw some accountability this year after a 15-year fight to recognize decades of inequitable funding and unfair duplication of its programs.
The Coalition for Excellence and Equity in Maryland Higher Education, which represented the HBCUs, proved to a federal court that Maryland violated the U.S. Constitution by failing to enhance the programs at Black colleges, which often were duplicated by the state’s predominantly white institutions. Maryland’s lawmakers passed legislation signed in March by Gov. Larry Hogan that over a decade will allocate $577 million in supplemental funding to the colleges.
United Airlines selected the TSU aviation program as a partner
for its 2021 Corporate Social Impact Strategy Initiative. While the dollar amount has not yet been disclosed, the partnership will give funding to supplement students’ flight fees, to build scholarships and a match program at the university. It will also offer travel vouchers for students traveling to aviation-related conferences, Fontaine said.
And in March, the aviation program established a relationship with the U.S. Air Force Junior ROTC. That effort will allow high school students to come to the university’s flight school to train in late May.
One of few
TSU launched an aviation science management program in 1986. It now teaches courses on aviation weather, law, history and safety, as well as air traffic control.
Four years ago, the pilot program, certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, began with the goal of building a pipeline that equips students with a multi-engine commercial pilot license or a certified flight instructor license, and then directly to careers at airlines.
Texas Southern is one of nine HBCUs in the country and the only public four-year institution in Texas to have an aviation management system, a pilot program and a flight school. (Texas A&M University-Central Texas in Killeen has an all-online professional pilot program.)
The aviation program, which has graduated two pilot students, also benefits from its location at the Ellington Airport in Houston — not far from the George Bush Intercontinental and William P. Hobby airports, which are hubs for airlines including Atlas Air, United and Southwest.
The aviation science management program has 62 students currently enrolled, and the pilot program has 21 students, Fontaine said.
‘I get to see Black instructors’
Preparing students, many of whom are Black, for an industry lacking diversity and undergoing pivotal changes is at the program’s core.
There will be a shortage of aerospace professionals due to the tens of thousands of pilots, technicians and cabin crew members who are set to reach the required retirement age of 65 over the next decade, according to research from Boeing, the world’s largest aerospace company.
European aerospace company Airbus predicted in 2016 that 450,000 new pilots will be needed by 2035.
Although business aviation is in recovery, Boeing experts predict it could take three years for commercial air travel to return to 2019 levels following the pandemic, and when it does, the industry must be ready.
Fontaine said Texas Southern’s students, in particular, would be
an asset to an industry where professional pilots and flight engineers historically skew white and male.
Hudson, who was stationed in Guam in the Air Force guarding planes, said he’s rarely seen Black pilots in the military. “It’s important to be able to visualize the future,” he said.
At TSU, Hudson said, “I get to see Black instructors instead of just reading about them.”
A 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics report showed that 94 percent of the nation’s pilots and engineers were white and roughly 94 percent were male. Less than 6 percent were women and around 3 percent were Black.
United Airlines, the only major U.S. airline to own a flight school, announced April 6 that it plans to train 5,000 pilots by 2030, of which at least half will be women and people of color.
United also launched partnerships with HBCUs including Delaware State University, Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina and Hampton University in Virginia to recruit top talent, and, along with J.P. Morgan Chase, donated $1.2 million for scholarships to students admitted to United’s pilot development program.
Marcus Canady, commanding officer at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Houston, has served as an example for many of TSU’s aviation students. Canady, who is Black, said he tries his best to be visible and be a face for aspiring pilots. He knows they’re out there, he said.
“The challenge is not that there’s a lack of talent. It’s about getting the word out to students and the Coast Guard,” Canady said.
“African Americans need to see someone like me in uniform. It plants a seed, that this is something that they can do.”
The cost of pursuing a flight program can be an obstacle for many students.
TSU’s program is about $82,000, with $45,000 for commercial license and flight fees, and $37,000 for tuition, Fontaine said.
Flight fees alone typically cost $165 an hour, with a requirement of at least 250 hours for a commercial license. Although those costs are more affordable than other pilot programs and military veteran students have full costs covered by Veteran Affairs, lowerincome students still need assistance.
TSU sophomore Ashanti Morris, 19, who has wanted to be a helicopter pilot since she was 14, said she can’t afford to pursue the pilot program because of the fees. But she hasn’t given up hope or her dream of helping people through flying and is enrolled in the aviation management program.
“It feels like it’s all up to me now,” she said.
Fontaine said he is determined to help students like Morris achieve their dreams to fly.
“When we have the opportunity to get scholarships or anything we can do to get over the hump, that’s what we do,” he said.
Building partnerships with the military has proven crucial for students like Morris, helping offset the high costs with tuition scholarships, and offering opportunities to earn more certifications and training, Fontaine said.
The Coast Guard signed an agreement last year allowing TSU transportation studies students to receive a commission into the military branch. The Coast Guard granted Hudson a two-year scholarship and entrance into the Coast Guard Academy in February, which will allow him to finish training during the summer.
Hudson is set to complete the program next summer and graduate from TSU, after which he will become an officer in the Coast Guard.
“I can focus strictly on school, and in my case, flying planes and getting my licenses,” Hudson said.
Fontaine said that his dream is to enroll students in TSU flight courses starting in high school, allowing them to pursue their degree and pilot license at the HBCU before sending them off to careers in the airlines.
He said he’s working to establish a relationship with Houston ISD, namely Sterling Aviation Early College High School, which offers an aviation magnet program and a chance for high schoolers to earn their pilot’s license.
“This is just the beginning,” Fontaine said.