FORT LAUDERDALE — When 9-year-old Jamika Powell became a member of the Nan Knox Boys & Girls Club’s Ionosphere Club, she was afraid of flying, even though she had never seen the inside of an airplane.
After one year in the club and a field trip to the North Perry Airport in Pembroke Pines, the fourth grader from North Fork Elementary admitted recently that she would “fly a Cessna to Orlando or Hawaii if I had the opportunity. It’s the safest plane I’ve flown [using flight simulator software] so far.”
The club founded in 2007 by Leo Gray, a former member of the Tuskegee Airmen, is a pilot program for the Nan Knox Boys & Girls Club. It was formed to excite students about learning through aviation, said Virginia Knudsen, the club’s program director.
Participating children are introduced to science and mechanics; flight simulator software by Microsoft, and basic computer skills.
“They are also able to grasp the same communication techniques used for satellites and [air traffic control] operators,” Knudsen added.
The program, funded by individual benevolent grants, runs for 10 months at a time, and is in its second year.
Ten children, from first to eighth grades, are currently enrolled in the program, which can support a maximum of 15.
“The third through eighth graders are the most interested,” Knudsen said.
Since the program’s inception, 117 children have participated, “but their continuing participation is based on attendance and behavior,” added Knudsen, who holds a private civilian pilot’s license.
The aviation advisory committee, a group of professionals in the aviation field who give recommendations on the Ionosphere Club’s programs, also have an impact on the children, Knudsen said.
“Some of them do poorly in school, but the excitement of learning helps them out,” she said.
Gray admitted that it is “difficult to generate a program, and no one has any idea about the subject, so I’m pleased that this is so well received. It’s all about education.’’
The Tuskegee Airmen were an all-black group of pilots whose role in World War II eventually led to desegregation in the U.S. armed forces.
Gray joined the U.S. Air Force in 1943, and served on active duty for three and a half years before continuing his career in the Reserves. He flew with the 100 Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, 15th Air Force in Italy.
Gray retired in 1984.
“I’m hoping this program will open their minds,” Gray added, “and that they will realize that there are more jobs out there than firemen and policemen.”
Nine-year-old Ellen Olriedge described her first-time experience of boarding a plane as “nothing like the computer; it’s real life when you get up close. Here, we learn about different types of planes and how they work, but seeing one was more than I expected.”
A third grader at Martin Luther King Elementary School, Ellen admitted that if she wants a career in aviation, “I’ll need to keep making straight A’s. I don’t want to be a pilot exactly, but definitely something with planes.”
Karl Wright, president of Florida Memorial University (FMU), described the club’s curriculum as “impressive” and a “well-kept secret. If they take what they are learning here seriously, they will go a long way.”
Barrington Irving Jr., the first and youngest pilot of African descent to fly solo around the world, attended FMU.
Of the more than 80,000 employees in aviation, Wright said, “There simply aren’t enough women and minorities involved. This may make a difference.”
Captain A. J. Tolbert, FMU’s director and assistant professor of aviation, added that fewer than one percent of the people working in aviation are minorities, “and even fewer women. I’m glad to see that girls are members in this club.”
Thirteen-year-old Christopher Robinson has been in the club since its inception, and said he continues “because it’s fun.”
A seventh grader at Parkway Middle School, Christopher said he has no ambition to work in aviation, but will someday own and operate his own private jet.
“My ambition is to become an entrepreneur and own several hotels,’’ he said. “I can then get in my jet and fly anywhere in the world I want to see.”
PHOTO BY ELGIN JONES/SFT STAFF: Ionosphere Club members Deandre Carr, forefront, and Kieran Pendergrass, center, train on computerized flight simulators at the Nan Knox Boys & Girls Club in Fort Lauderdale.