Flying provides a sense of ultimate freedom. Obstacles and challenges present themselves, but you rise above them undeterred by gender, economic circumstances and other perceived barriers.
In October, the Mile High Flight Program marked 20 years of encouraging young people to diligently pursue their dreams of doing whatever is necessary to give them flight.
Grounded in the principles of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Mile High Flight Program has exposed Colorado’s youth to opportunities in aviation, aerospace and related fields since 1996. Sponsored by the Hubert L. “Hooks” Jones Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, the 20th year was kicked off at the Wings Over the Rockies Museum Theater packed with more than 100 attendees including students and families. This was the start of another Phase I, a series of seven field trips to aviation and aeronautical related facilities and organizations throughout the Front Range. Phase II for a select few incudes flight training, culminating in a solo flight in a Cessna.
The program is facilitated by the “Mile High Flight Crew,” local professional pilots, who volunteer their time. When United Airlines Capt. Eric Mosley asked the gathering if they knew about the Tuskegee Airmen, few hands were raised. He talked about remembering the legacy of these brave decorated African-American men and embraced their principles, which made them successful, as these notable alumni have.
Aim High: The young men who would become Tuskegee Airmen dreamed of flying. No one else believed they could. By aiming high we can achieve more.
Believe in Yourself: Believing in their own abilities and working hard, the Black Airmen became heroes. Self-confidence is always a key to success.
Harrison fixated on planes at the age of 5, after his uncle gave him a Delta Airlines MD-11 model. When Western Pacific Airlines went bankrupt in Colorado Springs in 1997, many of his classmates’ parents lost their jobs. Harrison questioned this occurrence, and developed an interest in the aviation field in general. He found the Mile High Flight Program while in high school through his mother’s beautician client. During Phase I, he commuted from from October to May to attend the monthly field trips in Colorado Springs.
“Phase I was like going to a mall and seeing so many different stores, “ Harrison says “like seeing all the different aspects of flight. A lot of times when people think aviation, they automatically think pilots. But the program really exposes you to all the different elements of flight outside of that.”
Harrison’s father drove him up to the United Airlines Flight Training Center in a blizzard. “That was such a special time for me to think that one of my parents had so much support for me in going into this field, and researching more about the aviation industry,” he says. At the end of Phase I, Harrison took the glider flight at Owl Canyon wearing a cast after knee surgery. He was selected for Phase II, and soloed in a Cessna 172 in 2007. “Phase II taught me so much about not only being a pilot, but also trusting myself and my instincts,” Harrison said. “I had the pleasure and honor of having Capt. Mosley’s late father witness my flight solo who gave me advice. He talked about his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman, talked about trusting yourself – again just re-affirming those lessons I learned throughout Phase II. It’s a moment I will never forget, being able to talk to a real Tuskegee Airman who supported me on my flight solo.”
Harrison works in acquisitions and procurement for the Department of Defense in Washington D.C. His goal is getting his MBA and entering the aviation field in management and operations and to become the first African-American CEO of a major airline.
“This program gave me the momentum I needed as a teenager to realize that there is a place for me, a young boy of color in the sky,” Harrison says. “This program not only gave me the opportunity to see a lot of minorities in the aviation industry, it gave me the support and confidence to know that one day I could make a difference in aviation as well.”
Use Your Brain: Your brain is like a muscle. Stop using it and it gets weak. By using our brains we can realize our potential.
Never Quit: Be persistent. Be patient. Never ever quit. Make a little progress every day. The Tuskegee Airmen earned a reputation for being the best. And it didn’t happen overnight.
Standing at 5’1,” Andrea Menjura isn’t your typical pilot, but little has deterred her. “In the U.S., as long as you can touch the pedals, they will let you fly,” Menjura said. She now pilots Boeing 737s for United Airlines. Coming to the United States from Colombia when she was 16, her family settled in Montrose, Colorado. She came to the Denver metro-area and attended Overland High School, when her mother decided to go back to school. Menjura a flyer about the Mile High Flight Program at school and attended a meeting. She entered Phase I in October 2002 and returned to Montrose in December. Menjura commuted over 300 miles each way from Montrose every month for the remainder of Phase I, and she stayed in a camper with her father while she took flight lessons during Phase II. Menjura soloed in 2003 and was well on her way to fulfilling her dream of being a pilot.
In Colombia, Menjura had waved to the airplanes as they flew in and out over her grandmother’s house and longed to be in the cockpit. But Menjura knew in Colombia, there was little chance for a woman being a pilot. On her trip to the U.S. there was a layover in Miami. “I remember seeing a female pilot, and I said, ‘Well if she can do it, I can do it too,’” she says. This chance observation ignited the spark.
After graduating from Montrose High School, Menjura obtained her associates degree and her flight instructor certification at Colorado Northwestern Community College. Menjura has flown for Great Lakes, Frontier and now United Airlines. She is grateful to the program for her career. “They showed me the path to my dream,” she says. “I remember writing an essay for Phase II called ‘Putting Wings to My Dreams.’ Wings are the airplanes, and everything they told me; they always said work hard, have determination and aim high believe in yourself. It does pay off and it is thoroughly true. So I want to invite young women out there to try it, because anything they dream about is possible. “
Be Ready to Go: Every day is your chance to be a little smarter, a little stronger.
Like Menjura, Air Force 1st Lt. Mahad Fahieh’s interest in aviation was sparked by the airport. He remembers relatives from Ethiopia flying in and out of Denver. “At Stapleton, I would watch the planes fly, and it always fascinated me how something that big could get off the ground and go,” he says. In middle school he built fighter jet models.
At Smoky Hill High School Fahieh found the Mile High Flight Program at the suggestion of a counselor. He participated for two years and soloed in 2008. Fahieh was a junior and had just gotten his driver’s license. A civil engineering major at the University of Colorado Boulder, Fahieh joined the ROTC and had the opportunity to coordinate flyovers. Fahieh went on active duty in the United States Air Force in 2014, and is stationed at Buckley AFB where he is assigned to space operations. As with Menjura and Harrison, the Mile High Flight Program opened him to new possibilities.
“There are a number of different things with regards to the aerospace community,” he says. “There’s engineering. There are so many different options out there for you. Don’t put yourself in one little niche. Go out there and explore. Go find out what your calling is and then go pursue it with everything that you’ve got. “
Expect to Win: If you don’t believe great things will happen, then they never will. When the Airmen returned from war to everyday life, they faced many challenges. However, they knew they could handle them. And they did.
In recent years many of the flight soloists have been young women. Mile High Flight Program raised one of them to new heights she couldn’t imagine. Denver East High School graduate Kamia Bradley is attending Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz. She soloed in 2015 and posted the experience on YouTube, youtu.be/zDejtxBy4WU. Bradley’s path into the air was wrought with her own personal turbulence. Dealing with abandonment and homelessness, she was led to the Mile High Flight Program by a mentor with Colorado Uplift. Because Bradley lacked a computer, she often did her Phase II homework assignments on a cell phone and in the library.
“And I tell people about that in my essay and I showed them how my passion to get to that goal of a bright future outweighed the other things that seemed to be holding me back,” she says, “like being homeless, or not having any money, or not having any ride to get me to events, having to go the extra mile so I could get someplace, that never stopped me.”
Bradley, on her way to fulfilling her dream, will be a flight instructor by her senior year, and is on the path to becoming a commercial pilot. Her advice to anyone wanting to fly, “If they want to fly, they have to know that it is a lot of hard work. You have to go above and beyond, but the payoff is amazing. And if you really have a passion to do something, then there is absolutely nothing that can stop you.”
Flying solo is unforgettable and exhilarating. For soloers like Bradley, there is nothing like it. “The most exciting part was taking off – the view,” she says. “It was my first time taking off early in the morning. I arrived at the airport at 6 a.m. and I did my solo at 7 a.m. It was the first time I had seen the sun come up and by the time I was flying it was already up. I saw the highway, and I saw the cityscape, and it just reminded me why I really wanted to fly in the first place, because of the view that flying gives you – to be able to see the ground from the sky.”
Changing our views is integral to success. And the Hubert L. “Hooks” Chapter president, Col. Mark Dickerson believes in the continued value of the program, because of the positive track record and the encouragement it provides to students – even those that don’t get into flight training. Over the 20 years, 1,000 students have been introduced to aviation and aerospace opportunities, and flown in the glider at Owl Canyon and in a Cessna at Centennial airport. Fifty have received flight-training scholarships and completed solo flights.
The community can support this program through financial or in-kind contributions. “A lot of the things the students get an opportunity to do and see are field trips that are set up and hosted by aviation related or STEM related organizations. What would also be helpful, is that organizations that have that aviation, or space or scientific kind of role in the community, could open up their organizations for tours for these kids and make their people available to them and tell them some of the things that they are doing and some of the opportunities that are available in their fields,” Dickerson said. Tell those students what they need to be doing now in order to get to those places; show them the kinds of things they are doing and ignite a spark in those students.
“We at the Hooks Jones Chapter hope what the program does is to provide a little bit of a view into the potential futures for these young folks. And to help them make decisions regarding what are some of their choices for their own futures, so its avitaion oriented, and it tends to have young people who have a potential interest in aviation related trainings or careers. But it is our purpose to encourage excellence no matter what they do. And we hope that is does that, and shows them what that pursuit of excellence can do for their future,” Dickerson said.
Success never comes easy. There is always sacrifice and sometimes we just need to re-orient our compass. “Straighten up and Fly Right!”.