On September 25, 2004, 11-year-old Jimmy Haywood flew a single-engine Cessna 172 airplane from his hometown of Compton, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Other preteen pilots had flown planes for short distances, but Haywood's flight was a record-breaker: he was the youngest African-American pilot to make an international flight. His feat was noteworthy in another way as well, for he demonstrated the potential of a unique pilot-training program that was growing and desperately seeking funding in one of the most notoriously violent neighborhoods in the United States.
Compton was famous as the hometown of hip-hop group N.W.A. and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. But its predominantly Latino and African-American population was plagued by poverty and a very high homicide rate, largely the result of street gang rivalry. It was to try to address these problems that pilot Robin Petgrave, owner of a company called Celebrity Helicopters, founded Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum, or TAM. He was inspired by the philosophy of the World War II-era African-American air corps called the Tuskegee Airmen, who overcame tremendous odds as they made military contributions. Jimmy Haywood, who lived across the street from the museum, was one of the youngsters drawn into the building by flight simulation programs Petgrave installed on donated computers. Haywood was nine at the time, and his interest in flying had first been awakened by the Compton Air Show.
Petgrave, often financing the museum on a shoestring with profits from his helicopter company, progressed from flight simulations to acquiring planes and offering actual flying lessons. Haywood and the other student pilots, few of whose families could have afforded even one commercial flying lesson at the going rates of $50 an hour or more, had to earn virtual "museum dollars" to pay for their lessons by removing graffiti in the area, cleaning planes, or doing similar jobs. There were strict rules: Petgrave made them sign contracts to attend classes and to stay clear of drugs and gang activity. "Every day," noted Melody K. Hoffman of Jet, "they are taught to dream big and to work hard toward their goals."
Accumulating 115 museum dollars for each lesson, Haywood was quickly hooked. His training program was interrupted when he nearly drowned in a swimming pool at his mother's house and spent two and a half days in a coma. When he awakened, the first thing he asked was whether he would be able to continue flying. By the time he made his flight to Canada, he was a veteran with two years of pilot training under his belt in TAM's Junior Explorer Training Program.
The fuel and maintenance required for the Canada trip all cost money that TAM didn't have. The solution was do-it-yourself fundraising for the prospective international traveler: Haywood wrote letters to prospective sponsors, asking them to underwrite the trip and bringing in a total of $7,100. "This is the most effective, real, credentialed program you'll ever see that has no backing," Petgrave told Tavis Smiley of National Public Radio.
Along for the ride on Haywood's flight was another young TAM pilot, Kenny Roy, who was out to set a record of his own: he was 14, and thus old enough to become licensed to fly solo in Canada (the U.S. minimum age is 16). Roy helped with the fundraising letter-writing. On Wednesday, September 22, 2004, Haywood took off in a TAM Cessna from Compton/Woodley airport near Los Angeles. He showed off a bit for observers, flying in circles over the nearby city of Torrance and making his way past the busy airspace around Los Angeles International Airport. Helicopters from news organizations shadowed the plane, "but little Jimmy put the moves on them over LAX and lost them," Petgrave told Smiley.
The trip to Vancouver took ten hours in all, with several refueling stops at airports along the way. Haywood was accompanied by a certified flight instructor, who sat beside him (Roy was in a back seat), but he did all the flying himself, seated on a stack of cushions so he could see out the windshield. The duo flew over farms, lakes, and mountain peaks topped with snow, and after their trip was over they said that seeing the scenes of nature had been the best part of their trip. Haywood navigated through a rainstorm and more news helicopters before landing in Canada and heading for a hotel.
In Vancouver it was Roy's turn; he took a physical, was examined by Canadian pilots, and performed a series of maneuvers in the air before being given his license and ceremonially doused with water by other pilots. On the third day of their trip, Haywood seated himself at the controls of the Cessna once more for the return trip to Compton. Asked by Jet's Hoffman whether he was afraid leaving the country, which most 11-year-olds would be even if not flying a plane, Haywood replied, "No, I wasn't scared because at the airport you train first, then you go for lessons and I was training for two years."
Another highlight of the trip for both young flyers was being congratulated at the end by Tuskegee Airmen corps member Lee Archer. The flight experience and the TAM program as a whole helped Haywood to make an early start in thinking about his career, and the military figured in his plans. On Tavis Smiley's program he announced his desire to go into the U.S. Navy. In the TAM program he would have various opportunities to prepare, including a partnership with the Boeing corporation that provided hands-on engineering training. A Boeing representative presented Haywood and Roy with company flight jackets after they completed their round-trip journey.
Despite Haywood's nonchalance about his flight, he did have a sense of his accomplishment, boasting to Chris T. Nguyen of the Houston Chronicle that "I was making history." But Petgrave noticed that Haywood and Roy still kept a mature kind of modesty about their world records. "They're reading about themselves in places from all over the world,…" he told Hoffman. "And for them they still look at themselves as regular kids and they look at themselves as something they did that they're thoroughly convinced that any other kid can do it. And that's the kind of humbleness and the kind of focus a kid would need to become a really successful hero in the future."
At a Glance …
Born 1993(?); raised in Compton, CA. Education: Took aviation classes at Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum Compton.
Career: Youngest African-American pilot in history to make an international round-trip flight, 2004.
Awards: California State Senate recognition, 2005.
Addresses: Aviation school—Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum, Compton Airport, 961 West Alondra Blvd. Compton, CA 90220.
Houston Chronicle, September 27, 2004, p. 3.
Jet, November 8, 2004, p. 14.
Sentinel (Los Angeles, CA), February 17-23, 2005, p. C3.
Vancouver Province (Vancouver, BC), September 27, 2004, p. A2.
Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum, www.tamuseum.org (July 19, 2006).
"Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum," Plane & Pilot Magazine, www.planeandpilotmag.com/content/2006/feb/aeronautical.html (July 19, 2006).
"Flight School for Youth," The Tavis Smiley Show, National Public Radio, October 12, 2004; available on-line at www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4092972 (September 25, 2006).