Every day—yes, even Christmas—between 50 and 150 kids show up at Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum (TAM), an incredibly unique nonprofit flight school in Compton, Calif. First they must finish their homework (there are even tutors there to help), and then they can take advantage of a variety of opportunities to earn money. The jobs might include graffiti mitigation, picking up trash from a local community park or even washing the occasional Cessna on the school’s flight line. But the money they earn isn't available to the kids as hard cash. Instead they receive credit for flight lessons at the TAM flight school. The result is that an amazing number of kids from a tough inner-city Los Angeles neighborhood are learning to fly.
Jimmy Haywood was nine when he started walking across the street from his house to TAM. He spent every day there after school, learning about aircraft control on flight-simulation programs installed on the school’s donated computers. In short order, he began earning “museum dollars” so he could transition into real airplanes. A little more than a year later, he would navigate a real Cessna 172 (with an instructor) all the way from Southern California to Canada and back, becoming the youngest African American pilot to take on international flight.
“It blows your mind what these kids are accomplishing,” says TAM founder Robin Petgrave. “We’re producing the stars of tomorrow today. That’s why we’re called Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum.”
Petgrave’s confidence in his project and in the kids is no idle boast. Recently he took three TAM students—Richard Olmos (age 12), Diamond Hooper (age 13) and Kenny Roy (age 15)—to Washington, D.C., and challenged two U.S. Air Force pilots to a spot-landing contest. “It was really fun,” says Petgrave. “Here we had pilots, whom the government had spent millions of dollars to train, competing against our kids from TAM, who learned to fly for free!”
Out of the five competitors, Kenny Roy placed second, but only by a matter of a few feet. The pilot who beat him had some pretty impressive credentials—pilot in command for Air Force One.
Roy made news last year, as well, when he flew a Cessna 152 all by himself in Canada and became the youngest African America to be licensed for solo fight. U.S. regulations require a minimum age of 16 for a student to solo, but Canadian regs allowed Roy to qualify earlier. This spring, Petgrave intends to take 14-year-old Jonathan Strickland to Canada and have him solo in a fixed wing and a helicopter—both on the same day.
“We’re not trying to make records. A lot of our accomplishments do make or break records; it’s just the nature of what we do,” Petgrave insists. He just wants to make sure his kids get the recognition they deserve.
And recognition they get. Hanging on the walls of Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum is a huge collection of acknowledgements and commendations from all over—Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the NAACP, Boeing, the U.S. Senate, the House of Representatives, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors, President George W. Bush and on and on.
Recently TAM joined the Compton Unified School District to begin a Build A Plane project, an international effort to give high-school kids the chance to build a real airplane (www.buildaplane.org). Reena Singh, the director of the Regional Occupation Programs (ROP), arranged for students to split the days of the week between learning avionics and computer-assisted design, and building a Thorp Skyskooter T211, donated to TAM by IndUS Aviation (www.indusav.com).
“You can’t imagine how cool the kids think it is to build a real airplane!” Petgrave says. The Compton kids’ construction project has been supported by mentors from Boeing Aircraft and the Northrop Grumman Corporation. Students who participate in the Compton ROP program at TAM are invited to Boeing for a special dinner and a chance to play on some of the complex flight simulators. Some of the kids even go on to become interns at Boeing.
Petgrave is also working hard on developing what he calls the Think Tank. Aided by engineers from both Boeing and Northrop Grumman, Petgrave wants the kids at TAM to learn to think outside the box and design their own aircraft. His dream allows for kids from the Think Tank to eventually get a chance to build their schemes and fly them. He’s even invited Mexico’s President Vicente Fox to send kids up to Compton to join in on the fun.
Petgrave attributes his drive to his association with the Tuskegee Airmen, the inimitable World War II team of African American pilots and airmen. “These guys faced some pretty ridiculous odds, but they just went ahead anyway and got the job done. That kind of determination inspires me,” shares Petgrave. To try to get more of that Tuskegee inspiration and determination, Petgrave joins members of the Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen in Positive Vibrations, a program that makes regular appearances at area schools.
Despite being showcased in People magazine and again on NBC’s “Today Show,” Petgrave’s ambitious effort is continually facing financial obstacles. In the five years he has operated TAM, only two of those years benefited from any outside funding. TAM uses the small amount of cash it makes from paying customers at the flight school and from Celebrity Helicopters, a charter company Petgrave operates. TAM’s employees are mostly volunteers.
“I know that if we keep doing what we’re doing, somebody, sometime will notice and we’ll get funded,” he says confidently. Petgrave has a rash of ideas he’s waiting to unfold once he’s fiscally able. One big dream is to set up replicas of TAM in dozens of other places around the country. “And I’m willing to do that right now if anyone asks me,” he promises.
Not surprisingly, Petgrave spends many long hours at Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum almost as a second father figure watching his children grow up. Does all this exposure to flying make kids want to go into aviation?
“Yes—or space!” Petgrave inserts with a smile. “Some of these kids are already thinking way beyond being pilots. They want to be astronauts!” If that sounds like wishful thinking from a group of kids from a difficult part of Los Angeles, think again. Petgrave already has introduced his kids to the civilian astronauts of SpaceShipOne.
For more information on Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, visit www.mentormall.cc/tamprofile.cfm or call (310) 618-1155.