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Black woman pilot rekindles legacy of Tuskegee Airmen

MONTGOMERY (AP) — Nearly five years after running into a pair of Tuskegee Airmen on a campus visit, Chrystal Cole has become Tuskegee’s first woman pilot in about six decades, and one of only a small number of black women aviators in the United States.

“It has definitely not been clear skies, but every single struggle was worth it,” Cole said. “It was something that was my passion, so I was willing to do whatever it took.”

Rekindling the legacy of the famed all-black fighter pilot unit of World War II, Cole is the first female graduate of a joint program between Tuskegee University and Kansas State University at Salina. Begun in 2001, it seeks to encourage diversity in the aviation industry.

Cole was already considering an aviation career when she met the two airmen at Tuskegee University in 2002, when she was trying to decide which college to attend.

“They told me, ‘If this is something you really want to do, you can do it. Don’t let anything stand in your way,”’ she said.

Those were inspiring words, coming from two of the airmen whose all-black unit was trained at Moton Field at Tuskegee and helped break racial barriers while gaining fame escorting bombers in World War II.

Cole, who flew her first plane at 19, graduated Dec. 8 at KSU, where Tuskegee Airman Col. George Boyd presented her with a certificate recognizing her accomplishments.

“These airmen have paved the road for me and a lot of African-American aviators today,” Cole said. “It is up to my generation to pass this legacy on... I am thankful I am in the position to do so.”

According to Tuskegee University’s Web site, Mildred Hemmons Carter became the first black woman to graduate from the cadet pilot training program at Tuskegee in 1941 and the first in Alabama to be awarded a pilot’s license.

Although more blacks have gone on to pursue a career in aviation since then, there are few black female pilots — just 140 out of 124,825, or about 0.1 percent of the pilot population in the U.S., according to 2002 census data.

There were 1,925 black male pilots, or 1.5 percent.

Cole, in a recent interview with The Associated Press, said a lack of education and economic barriers may prevent blacks from pursuing aviation careers. She said it’s important to educate young people about the field.

“You just can’t start when they’re high school or going to college, you have to start when they’re young,” said Cole, who also has an engineering degree and now works as a design engineer at Cessna Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kan.

Although she has decided to concentrate on her career as an engineer for now, Cole hopes to rack up enough flight hours to one day become a commercial pilot like Tahirah Lamont, the first black female pilot hired by Fed Ex. She recalled how excited she was to meet Lamont at a 2003 event in Seattle hosted by the Organization of Black Airline Pilots.

“I was so in awe with her and her accomplishments,” Cole said.

She also admires Lamont because she earned her license as a civilian.

“Many say you need to go through the military,” Cole said. “It may take more time, but you can do it as a civilian.”

The majority of airline pilots historically have come from the military, with others coming from university or collegiate programs and flight schools that offer non-degree awarding training, according to KSU aviation department head Marlon Johnston.

According to the University Aviation Association, there are 114 aviation-related programs, with 88 that specifically offer flight training.

Under the joint Tuskegee and Kansas State program, students get a bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee in aerospace engineering and earn a degree as a professional pilot at KSU during the summer. They complete their coursework in Tuskegee during the regular academic year, then come to Kansas State up to three summers in a row to attend classes and accomplish flight training.

“This is a daunting challenge and only the most dedicated students can accomplish this,” Johnston said. “Chrsytal was only the second student to fulfill this opportunity, which is a credit to her personal drive and professional attitude.”

He said while on campus in the summers, Cole also was a resident assistant and worked as a pilot at the Aviation Youth Academy, a program for children from the metropolitan Kansas City area.

“Whether she was in the classroom, cockpit or community, Chrsytal represented herself, Tuskegee and K-State well,” Johnston said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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