Why Not Me? Courtland Savage Promotes Diversity and Inclusion in Aviation

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Illustration by Felipe Vargas

My goal is to show kids who look like me that they can fly, too.

I flew a plane before I ever actually flew on a plane. I earned my private pilot’s license at 17 years old, a few months before I boarded a CRJ-700 that would take me to the bootcamp of the US Air Force Reserve. It’s the same aircraft that I piloted a decade later for United Express, where I now work.

When I was growing up, my dad would take me to the airfield in Charlotte, North Carolina, where I’m from, to watch the planes take off ­– so maybe the idea of working in aviation was somewhere in the back of my mind, but it’s not something I dreamed of. In high school, I wanted to be a train conductor, but after playing a train simulation game, I let go of that idea: It was just too boring.

I did not think about being a pilot because I did not know I could be one. You do not see a lot of people that look like me in the cockpit. There were only two African-Americans in my US Navy squadron, and less than three percent of commercial pilots in the United States are Black. Passengers often think that I am a flight attendant: On a few occasions, while standing at the front of the plane during boarding, I have been handed their bags.

“I remember when the instructor gave me control of the plane for the first time. The feeling was just unreal. Within three months, I had graduated high school early, earned my private pilot’s certificate and was off to the US Air Force Reserve.” – Courtland Savage

Lack of representation is why I started Fly For The Culture, a nonprofit that helps promote diversity and inclusion in aviation. We introduce young minorities to the industry and the different roles available to them by bringing them on tours of airports, maintenance facilities and manufacturers. We also provide free introductory flight lessons and are working on other programs that would help in their would-be careers.

My inspiration to fly came about differently. I did not have an organization like Fly For The Culture to encourage me, but I did have Barack Obama. In 2008, when he was running for the presidency, I turned to a friend and jokingly said, “If he wins, I am going to learn to fly a plane.” At the time, it was the craziest, most far-fetched idea that came to mind. In my head, flying a plane was just as out of reach for someone who looked like me as the presidency was for someone who looked like him.

I remember when the instructor gave me control of the plane for the first time. The feeling was just unreal. Within three months, I had graduated high school early, earned my private pilot’s certificate and was off to the US Air Force Reserve.

The military is one of the most cost-efficient ways to get the hours and experience required to fly commercial. I grew up middle-class and was lucky that my parents were able to co-sign a loan so I could afford my initial flight school, which I repaid by scrubbing pots and pans at a hospital. But without the military, becoming a professional pilot would have meant getting saddled with loans.

I earned my Bachelor of Science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Charleston, South Carolina, while working on the Air Force base and was accepted into the US Navy Officer Candidate Program, in Rhode Island. After completing Officer Candidate School, I moved to Pensacola, Florida, to begin flight school. I selected to fly tailhook aircraft out of primary flight training. Tailhook aircraft at the time included: E-2/C-2, F/A-18, E/A-18. Me and my close friend in flight school decided to pursue the F/A-18 Super Hornet, which required us to move to Meridian, Mississippi, to fly the T-45 Goshawk, an advanced strike-fighter training aircraft for a year, then off to Virginia Beach to start training on the F/A-18. Me and my roommate at the time were the only two Black pilots in the entire squadron, with no Black instructors.

This is why I am making my life’s mission the pursuit of diversity in aviation. I love flying commercial planes – I don’t feel like I’ve worked a day since starting my job – and I know that just seeing me in the cockpit can be inspiring for young minorities. Right now, with the Black Lives Matter movement, people are paying more attention, they are listening and coming out to support us like never before, but the need to make aviation more equal has not changed.

Fly For The Culture is still in the startup phase – we are only three years old, but I can see the impact we are already having. Last winter, we brought a group of students from West Charlotte High School, which is a predominantly Black high school, to tour the American Airlines facilities. One of the students loved the experience so much that he became the first person we are helping to get their pilot’s license. I recently went flying with him at the same airport where I earned my private pilot’s license. I sat in the back as the student sat in the left seat with a certified flight instructor in the right for his first lesson.

One day, I hope our mission statement will change from promoting diversity in aviation to just promoting aviation. Airlines are taking steps to make this happen. The American Airlines Cadet Academy, which removes financial barriers by providing funding for pilot training costs and steps to employment, is a great initiative, for instance. But many of the airlines are not doing enough; when you look at their magazines and social media accounts, they are not showcasing people from different backgrounds. I make it a point to post images of women and minorities flying planes to our Facebook and Instagram pages in the hopes that they might inspire kids who look at them to say: Why not me? 

“Why Not Me?” was originally published in the 10.4 November/December issue of APEX Experience magazine.

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