Email Ken Stallings   Why Not More Black Pilots?

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In August of 2020, General Charles Q. Brown was appointed to the position of Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force.  He was the first black to be appointed to the top spot in the Air Force.  Like all his predecessors, General Brown was a combat pilot, graduating from Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) back in April of 1986.  He graduated from AFROTC earning a degree and his commission from Texas Tech University back in 1985. 

General Brown appears to have selected social justice issues as a core focus of his administration of the Air Force.  He has already conducted at least two in-depth interviews for feature articles in the Air Force Association magazine, which is the nation's leading civilian advocacy agency for the Air Force.  In both of those articles, General Brown put nearly exclusive emphasis on improving what he says is an atmosphere of social injustice in the Air Force, calling into question promotion rates for minorities, and specifically criticizing the fact that during the entire time of his Air Force career, the percentage of black pilots in the Air Force has remained at about two percent.

There is one serious question that should be examined, during that time from 1985 until today, has there ever been in place any Air Force policy, implied or official, that would discourage or prevent black American citizens from applying to, and graduating from, UPT with their pilot wings?  That question seems the most important of all.  For if there really were any such policies, then it would be a shocking revelation, one very much unacceptable.  Research so far indicates there has been no such policies in place, formal or informal, material or implied.  If fact, if anything, during that time the Air Force has remained highly desirous of any minority citizen, black or otherwise, who showed the zeal and aptitude to pursue an Air Force pilot's career.

The population percentage of blacks in America stands at 14.6%, as being 47.8 million, out of a national population of about 328 million total. 

One must ask if two percent out of a population pool of 14.6% actually represents a troubling statistical anomaly.  It stands to reason that people having individual goals and dreams, it seems highly unlikely that a group standing at 14.6% of a large population would populate each and every profession at the same representative rate.  Skews would seem inevitable.  So, the point emerges, is two percent of 14.6% something to be alarmed about?

If the answer is yes, then it makes sense to fairly analyze the situation, and apply remedies that don't harm the overall quality of the profession, but does ameliorate the perceived inequities. 

Excuses need to end.  If we want to fix the problem, and we should, then let's courageously agree on what the problem is, and get the failed educators out of the failed school systems, and replace the systems and educators with programs and people designed to achieve academic success.

Factually speaking, we can rule out any formal Air Force policy that discriminated against black Americans becoming pilots in the Air Force.  The concern and focus on the situation isn't new.  Back in 2003, a lot of study was made into the issue.  It discovered that about 20% of the American military is comprised of black citizens.  Back then blacks in America represented about 13% of the national population.  So, that was a bit of a skew.

Yet it remained that only two percent of blacks were fixed wing pilots, either in the Air Force, or, as it turns out, in the US Navy either.  In fact, a landmark study in 2002 showed a shocking similarity in the percent of fixed-wing pilots in the Navy and the Air Force.  The Navy had 8,557 pilots, with just 185 being black -- 2.0 percent.  The Air Force had 12,639 pilots, with just 236 being black -- 2.1 percent.  Also, amazingly similar is that the population of pilots in both the Navy and Air Force were almost exactly the same, standing at 16 percent of the Navy's officer corps, and 16.1 percent of the Air Force's officer corps.

This Stars and Stripes article from 2003, concluded that, "What is not the culprit, apparently, is any large-scale, organized, covert effort on the part of the pilot community to keep blacks out."  At the time, the relative few black pilots echoed the sentiments of one instructor pilot, who said that the pilot community is, "for the most part, colorblind."

As another black Air Force pilot said, "My experience is that people are going to look at you in the pilot world in one way.  Are you a good pilot?"

If the rate of blacks as pilots in both the Navy and Air Force is small, and has remained so for decades, then it echoes another trend, that the percentage of blacks in the US military officer corps remains low.  Remember, back in 2003, about 20% of the entire US military was black.  But, DOD wide at the same time was that only 7.9% of US military officers were black.  The US Army has remained the best situation, with about 11.3% of their officer corps being black.  At the time, just 6.7% of blacks were Air Force officers and just 7.3% of Navy officers were black.  Those low percentages have not changed.

There are some undeniable realities.  One of those is that to be an officer in the US military, one must earn at least a baccalaureate degree.  And whether one likes it or not, the truth is that blacks do not attend college at a rate equal to their percentage in the US population.  While blacks graduate from high school at an equivalent rate to population, truth is only 16% of blacks graduate from college, while 30% of whites do.

The other undeniable truth is that pilot opportunities, called slots in military parlance, remain among the most highly coveted and therefore competitive slots in the Air Force and Navy.  Many apply, and few are selected, and those selected almost always represent the best of those in measured terms such as grade point average and scores on military skills tests. 

Those blacks who are selected, fare equally well in UPT graduation rates with their white peers.  So, once selected in the pilot training pipeline, blacks do equally well.  The challenge has been getting them into the pipeline to begin with.  This was not the case prior to 1999.  From 1987 to 1999, blacks graduated from UPT at a rate of 66%, while whites graduated at a rate of 75%.  Many believe that especially during the 1950's through 1980's that instructors tended to hold black student pilots to a higher standard, and washed them out more readily. 

It must also be said, that while overall a very low population sample, professional sports in basketball and football are dominated by black Americans.  The NBA currently sees black Americans fill 74.8% of those positions.  The NFL sees black Americans fill 58.9% of its slots.  No one has seriously expressed concern over this, nor does anyone see anything wrong in the numbers.  It is considered a case of meritocracy, pure and simple.  There are no special community programs being launched to get more white kids into basketball and football, especially when white kids comprise high percentages in pee wee and high schools programs.

So, what gives?

The basic threshold to become an officer and pilot in the US Air Force and US Navy is primarily academic achievement, on a measured and objective evaluative scale.  Something is holding back blacks in America, and it is something that sadly is very much outside the control of any military branch of service.  It is the terrible state of American education systems, and how they have systematically failed generations of black Americans.

The black population in America migrated from the southeast to the northeast, midwest, and west in large numbers between 1916 to 1970.  From 1780 to 1910, more than 90% of all black Americans lived in the southeast.  It must be clearly stated that they suffered second class treatment, deprived of most all opportunities for any formal education, and were for the most part during that time, effectively denied even the most basic rights of American citizenship.

Naturally, many blacks chose to move out of the southeast, and so by 1970, about 50% of blacks lived in the southeast, nearly the same percentage as lived in the north and west.  However, blacks also came to live primarily in urban cities, with 80% nationwide living in large cities, a situation that has not altered since.  Blacks in America are concentrated in urban cities, and nearly all of these cities feature some of the worst performing public school systems in America.  By 2000, even blacks who moved from the north back to the southeast, primarily moved from one northern large city to another southeastern large city.

The greatest concentration of failed public schools in America are located in these large cities.  Many of them have suffered for decades from horrible achievement scores, from elementary school all the way through high school.  Piloting an airplane has always been, and will always be, a skill set that requires scientific talent, developed early in childhood, so that by the time one reaches 18 years of age, he or she is equipped to compete and win those coveted slots as Air Force and Navy pilots.

Black Americans live today in a vastly higher percentage concentration in high poverty neighborhoods, nearly all of which are located in select sectors of major American cities.  A 2011-13 study from the US Department of Education revealed that 33% of all white students attended what were termed "low-poverty school systems," while just six percent attended what were termed "high poverty school systems."  By contrast, 40% of blacks attended a "high poverty school" while just 10 percent attended a "low poverty school."  The DEA made clear in that same study that high poverty schools mostly failed to properly educate their students, while low poverty schools systems performed much better.

One should take close note of those numbers.  The percentage of blacks who graduate from college is just 16%, about half the percentage of white kids, at 30%.  Suddenly, the close alignment of the numbers of blacks who attend low poverty schools (10%) becomes a very tight alignment with the percentage of blacks who become Army, Air Force and Navy officers -- 11.3% Army, 6.7% Air Force, and 7.3% Navy.

What it seems to boil down to is that the US military requires college graduation to become an officer, and it seeks out black officer candidates as eagerly as from any demographic in America.  But, if one does not have the degree, one cannot become an officer, and at least in the Air Force and Navy, one must first be an officer before becoming a pilot.

The NBA and the NFL do not require their players to hold college degrees.  The US military does require its officers to hold degrees. 

It seems clear then, that if one wishes to improve the situation of black achievement in entering the military officer corps, and in the fixed-wing military pilot profession, that one must first fix the broken urban area public school system, that has systematically failed to meet even the most basic of math, science, and reading comprehension levels.  Sad, that the very people complaining about that are often the same ones demanding the end to charter schools, private school voucher programs, and a host of other initiatives designed to allow parents of black children in our inner cities a fair opportunity for a better educational opportunity for their children.  Remember, the career progression of blacks who become officers and pilots, isn't all that different in success levels than that for white officers and pilots.  The problem is that so many fewer blacks than whites are becoming officers and pilots to begin with.

The truth seems clear.  If we wish to get serious about correcting social inequities, then the rational effort starts and ends with ridding our nation of failing school systems, and replacing them immediately with new schools systems, charged with the mandate to raise the quality of education for all American students, with the greatest need of improvement being for black students, primarily languishing in failed inner city public school systems. 

Excuses need to end.  If we want to fix the problem, and we should, then let's courageously agree on what the problem is, and get the failed educators out of the failed school systems, and replace the systems and educators with programs and people designed to achieve academic success.

-- Ken Stallings

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