Podcast: Legacy Flight Academy Engages Youth Through Opportunity And Mentorship

Legacy Flight Academy (LFA), a nonprofit organization, strives to inspire students of all ages to pursue careers in aviation and STEM. Kenny Thomas, co-founder of LFA, joins this week’s episode to share his journey and details how his organization is tackling an ongoing labor shortage across the industry. Hosted by Jeremy Kariuki, associate editor of business aviation for Aviation Week Network. 

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Rush Transcript: 

Jeremy Kariuki: Hello, and welcome to the BCA Podcast. I'm Jeremy Kariuki, Associate Editor for Business Aviation. Today, I'm joined by Kenny Thomas, co-founder of the Legacy Flight Academy, to discuss efforts to increase diversity and youth engagement across the aviation industry.

Kenny Thomas: I am one of the founders of Legacy Flight Academy. I'm a military vet. I'm also a reservist in the Air Force. I'm a navigator in the Air Force, I'm a airline pilot, I'm a flight instructor, and philanthropist and lover of aviation and youth.

Jeremy Kariuki: Well, how long have you been flying for?

Kenny Thomas: I've been flying since 2010, so 13 years. Well, my love for aviation started when I was a kid, just going to air shows, watching movies about aviation, and fixing airplanes when I first started in the Air Force. That's the foundation. And finding a way to get to aviation was a challenge for me, and that was part of the piece of the reason that my piece of founding Legacy Flight Academy started, because I had no idea what to actually do to get there. That's what we do with Legacy Flight Academy is help youth who may have an interest or the propensity to be able to learn about aviation or flying be able to find a pathway to get there.

Jeremy Kariuki: And, for those who don't know, what is Legacy Flight Academy? What kind of work do you do?

Kenny Thomas: Legacy Flight Academy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to introducing underrepresented youth to aviation through flight training, mentorship, and the history and legacy of the heroic Tuskegee Airmen.

Jeremy Kariuki: When you say underrepresented youth, is this a effort to increase diversity in the aviation industry?

Kenny Thomas: Absolutely. Our focus is to make sure that we identify students and young people who would've never got the opportunity to learn about aviation get exposed to it and show them a path that they would've never gotten. And, a lot of times, what we'll see is that we tend to lack diversity in aviation in our minorities, in our women, and in our students from low income families, because they just don't have access to it. They don't even know that they can actually do it.

Jeremy Kariuki: Is this also an effort to fight the ongoing pilot and maintainer shortage that's going on?

Kenny Thomas: Right. Even though we talk about pilots, it's all STEM career fields, specifically mechanics, pilots, air traffic controllers, anything in the aviation world. And we know that, in those career fields, those are extremely lucrative ways for people to make money and earn a living for their family, and there's so many opportunities that our students don't even know about. A lot of industry companies are always looking for more people. There are more spots to be filled in mechanics, air traffic control, and in pilots than we have people to give them. There's a lot of opportunities where there's funding out there to help people get training, getting the jobs where they can get some hands-on training to guide them in the right direction. There's a lot of efforts, and this is definitely one of those efforts, to bridge that gap where we have this shortage, so most definitely.

Jeremy Kariuki: Does LFA have any sort of programs or scholarships available?

Kenny Thomas: Yeah. I'll walk you through what our programs are. Our program is a three-tier program designed to take students from zero, no experience, up to being able to follow a pathway into aviation or STEM careers. Our P.A.R Motivations program, it's our outreach program that we go and do motivational speaking at schools and events, and we introduce students to professional aviation and STEM professionals so that they can not only hear about their stories and the pathway to get there, but they can actually see people who are like them and from the same places they are to help really connect them, to show them, "Hey, this is something that I can do," and that's one of our programs.

Our next is our Eyes Above the Horizon program, and that's our hands-on program that really gets students to not just hear about or see that they can fly or do these things, but we actually put them in an airplane and take them flying so they can see that this is something that they can do, as well as have other hands-on experiences in STEM, whether we have drones, whether we have learning about electronics, whether we're learning about engines or mechanics, and we have college and career professionals to help them find different pathways to get them there so they can take that, "Hey, I'm interested," and now we take it a step further.

And then we have our Double Victory Flight Program, which also leads into our Double Victory Scholarship Program. Double Victory Flight Program, we actually take students and take them to a two-week program to get them from little experience to being able to solo, which is one of the first steps in getting their private pilot certificate. And that's an in-resident program that, when we do it, we've done it in Tuskegee, Alabama, home of the historic Tuskegee Airmen, and get to be able to show them that they can not just fly a plane once, but they can actually accomplish something that they probably never imagined they could do. It not only gives them confidence, but it gives the people around them confidence to help show them that this is someone we want to invest in and continue on.

Our scholarship program, we started a few years ago, and that's been extremely successful, because the scholarship program, along with the mentorship program, we take students who are motivated and want to become pilots and we give them funding to pursue their private pilot certificate or whatever rating they're working on. But, along with that, we're giving them a consistent mentorship path throughout that process, because sometimes scholarships are great, you give someone funding, but flying and becoming a pilot is really difficult and there's a lot of nuances in it. Having someone along the way to guide you through the process is extremely helpful, and we've seen that, with that, we've been able to increase the success rate of our students.

Jeremy Kariuki: I want to back up to your background and your existence as a Black man. How does your experience as a Black pilot inform what you do now?

Kenny Thomas: Yeah. How that drives where I'm at and what I do? Being a Black man and being a pilot, I'll say the biggest challenge that I've had is not really seeing people like me flying, whether in the military or in the civilian world. That's a challenge. And as much as people say, "Oh, well you can do anything. It doesn't matter your race," and this type of thing, it's like, yeah, we know that because the Tuskegee Airmen showed that it doesn't matter your color, race, creed or anything, that you can fly. But, even though you logically know that, it's really hard to believe that when you don't know anybody or have anybody around you who is similar to you or have your background. Even just finding the path to become a pilot, it took a long time for me to have somebody who actually would spend time and really give me the background on how to do this and how to figure it out.

And, in the military, where it's still, I think, 2% of Black pilots, same thing in the civilian world, 2%, that's this much, and you can't see me because we're on audio, but it's this much, so it's not a lot. And that can have some big effects on you because you can tend to sometimes feel like you're an outsider, that maybe you don't fit in, and so that's something that you have to overcome. And, with proper mentorship and examples, it helps you realize that you can fit in, you can do these things, and those barriers that seem so big because of the fact that you're not the same as everybody else can shrink down.

And that's where having mentors that both are like you and aren't like you, having figures that are like you as well, like Tuskegee Airmen, can really help you overcome some of the pressure that's external and internal, being a Black person, being a Black man as a pilot. Because, yeah, it's not 1943 and people are not saying, "No, you can't do anything because you're Black," but that doesn't change what you see or that you're highlighted being that you are a minority in a field where you're not really represented.

Jeremy Kariuki: Tell me more about mentors that you may have had throughout your career, and what did they do for you that brought you to where you are now?

Kenny Thomas: Ah, that's a really good question. When it came to mentorship, I think about it at many, many levels. When I was an airman, I didn't have too many mentors that were pilots, and my parents didn't know much about flying or aviation. And, as I look back, even though I didn't have pilots as mentors, I definitely had people who mentored me to help make sure that my character was solid and kept me in line when it came to those things, because although a lot of aviation programs focus on flying, what we've realized is that, even if you learn about flying, most of what we do to get here has to do with character, hard work, discipline, and things that don't actually do with being in an airplane.

I had some extremely good mentors when I was an airman that guided me through taking the steps to earn my degree, go to college, get ROTC scholarship. When I was in ROTC, I was in a fraternity, and I had mentors from my fraternity that actually stepped in and said, "Hey, I'm going to help guide you through this process." I remember Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Incorporated. I had mentors in college. When I got to training, I had people who followed me throughout my career that have helped me immensely because there's no way ... I don't care whether you're white, Black, brown, it doesn't matter, you have to have a mentor to make it, to become a pilot and be a successful aviator at any level.

In flight training, I had good flight commanders that really were good mentors, guiding me through there. When I got to my first duty station, the same thing. While I was working on earning all of my ratings, some of my peers were actually my mentors as well because they had more experience in certain areas than me, and I used them to lean on as well. And the biggest piece with mentorship is do not be afraid to ask for help. And everybody doesn't have time, but somebody does, and there's a lot of people who will help you if you're putting in the work first. If you go to somebody and say, "Hey, I need help with this and I've done these things," they're way more likely to help you than say, "Can you help? And I haven't done anything yet."

I was fortunate that I was able to work hard upfront. I had people who saw what I did and I was able to lean on them. And, when people say, "Hey, reach out to me if you can," I reached out to them, I called them, and sometimes I just called them to say, "Hey, here's my status. Here's what's going on." I didn't just call them when I needed something. But I will say, too, the fact that I was heavily involved in the community and in helping other people, a lot of people helped me in turn. And I didn't help other people for the sake of other people helping me, but I will say that, when you spend your energy and effort helping other people, a lot of people will spend their energy and effort helping you.

Jeremy Kariuki: What is your hope for the kids, or students rather, that you work with in LFA? What do you want them to achieve once they've gotten out of your program or graduated high school or college?

Kenny Thomas: Even though we're Legacy Flight Academy and I would like every single student I talk to become a pilot, because I think it's cool and I want to see them out there while I'm out there flying, if none of our students ended up flying, but they all became productive members of society and were able to do things beyond what their current circumstance is then we've won. But, ideally, get into a STEM career field, get an education, whatever that looks like, whether it's technical training or college, and do something better, and then be able to bring that back to where you're from and be able to show other people that they can do these things and that you're the example that shows that they can do it. And what ends up happening is the community starts seeing the continual flow of people taking the next steps to better themselves, and in turn, it causes other people to be inspired by those people who are taking those next steps, and they continue to know and live and grow the legacy. That's the goal.

Jeremy Kariuki: That's really noble, and I think that's a really good cause that you're doing. If people want to get involved, if they want to participate, if they want to donate, if they want to join your team, what should they do?

Kenny Thomas: Yeah. Legacy Flight Academy, like I said, it's nonprofit, and we are 100% volunteer organization. We don't have a source of income, so funding is extremely important for us to do the events. The scholarships we give are based on how many donations we get or how much sponsorships we get, and people can donate on legacyflightacademy.org. They can go to our Instagram at Legacy Flight Academy, on our Facebook. They can Google Legacy Flight Academy. If you want to volunteer whenever we have events, you can go on our website and sign up on the newsletter or sign up as a volunteer and come and help out with our events. We need mentors. When it comes to doing our mentorship program, we would love to have people come and be mentors for our young people. And sometimes people think,

"Oh, I'm not qualified." Well, the fact that you're even thinking about doing it makes you qualified. Caring is what makes you qualified, not having XX number certifications or a particular degree. It's that desire to help students go to the next level.

Jeremy Kariuki: All right. Well, Kenny, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Kenny Thomas: Most definitely. I appreciate it, and like our motto goes, know, live and grow the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Jeremy Kariuki: This week's episode was produced by Andrea Copley-Smith. If you enjoyed the show, make sure to subscribe to the BCA Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, or Audible. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next time. 

Jeremy Kariuki

Jeremy Kariuki is Associate Editor for Business Aviation, based in Atlanta. Before joining Aviation Week in April 2023, Jeremy served as a writer for FLYING Magazine, FreightWaves and the Center for Sustainable Journalism.