Kenny Roy was just 14 years old when he flew his first solo flight over British Columbia in September of 2004, and made aviation history that day as the youngest African-American pilot licensed to fly a plane on his own in the world. Because Canadian aviation regulations allow 14-year-olds to earn their solo pilot's license, Roy journeyed with another young pilot and adult chaperone in a Cessna 172 aircraft from a Compton, California, airport to a flight-certification center in Vancouver, Canada, in order to earn his credentials. "I didn't want to stop flying because I knew I couldn't fly here solo," he told Jet writer Melody K. Hoffman.
The son of Everson and Linetta Esters, Roy's fascination with flight began when his parents bought him a flight-simulator game for his computer. He discovered a youth aviation program near his home. Roy joined the rigorous program at Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum, run out of Compton/Woodley Airport. To do so, he had to sign a pledge statement promising not to miss class and to avoid drugs and gangs. In order to receive free flight instruction, he volunteered at the museum. Over time, he managed to log some 50 hours in the skies, and was soon a skilled pilot, according to Robin Petgrave, the museum's founder and the youth-aviation program director, as quoted in Jet."Wedo landing contests for the kids to compete against each other," Petgrave told Hoffman in the Jet article. "I take a dime and put it on the runway. Their task is to take off, fly one traffic pattern and land as close to that dime as possible. And every year we do it, Kenny literally puts the main wheels on that dime. It's difficult for military pilots and this kid can land on the dime at will."
Roy was eager to earn his solo pilot's license, but in the United States the minimum age is 16; in Canada, however, 14-year-olds may qualify. Through the Compton youth-aviation program had Roy met eleven-year-old Jimmy Haywood, another enthusiastic young pilot who had some 20 hours' worth of flying experience. The two decided to make history with a flight to Canada in order for Roy to earn his solo license. They wrote to companies and private individuals, looking for sponsorship for their trip, and also had to submit a written flight plan before they began. With the support of museum officials and numerous well-wishers, the pair took off from Compton/Woodley Airport on a September day in 2004.
Their three-day trip was not a non-stop one: they landed and slept at hotels on the way. Nor were they alone: a certified flight instructor came with them, but the instructor did not fly the Cessna 172, allowing Roy and Haywood to log all the flight hours. At a Vancouver-area airport, Roy submitted to a physical, and then went aloft with a flight instructor. As part of the test, he had to demonstrate stalls, spins, and spiral dives in the plane; back on the ground he took a tough written exam, the Canadian Pre-Solo Aeronautical Test, for which he had studied over a lengthy two-day marathon session. "It was kind of hard, but I knew if I didn't I wouldn't have been happy with myself, because I would have come to Canada for nothing," he told Jet. Roy passed the exam, which made him the youngest black pilot licensed to fly solo in the world. When he earned his license, the other pilots at the Vancouver flight-training center tossed a bucket of water on him, a tradition there. He and Haywood returned home to Compton/Woodley Airport on Saturday, September 25. Haywood had set his own record, as the youngest African-American pilot to make an international roundtrip flight. Their safe landing was a major event at the airport, with family, friends, and even more well-wishers gathered to greet them.
One member of their fan club was Oscar York, president of the Tuskegee Airmen's Los Angeles chapter. The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of World War II fighter pilots who flew missions for the Army Air Force at a time when the U.S. military was still a segregated institution. Roy and Haywood's feat, York said, "should fill them up with pride and confidence in themselves," a report on the Black College View Web site by Tiffany Settles quoted him as saying. "Even if they don't want to fly later in life, it shows you can do something; and they're on their way to a good career, because they have heads that are already turned to the future."
Both Roy and Haywood were impressed by the scenery they witnessed during their flight, which took them over the mountain ranges, lakes, and forests of the western United States and Canada. Back in Compton, Roy returned to his classes as a tenth-grader and focused on his career goal, to become a commercial jet pilot. "It's exciting," a Grand Rapids Press report quoted him as saying. "It helps other kids, too, because they're following me. I set an example for them."
At a Glance...
Born 1990(?); raised in Compton, California; son of Everson and Linetta Esters.
Career: Trained as a pilot at Compton/Woodley Airport, Compton, CA; earned Canadian solo pilot's license, 2004.
Addresses: Office— c/o Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum, 961 West Alondra Blvd., Compton, CA 90220. Home— Compton, CA.
Grand Rapids Press, September 27, 2004, p. A5.
Jet, November 8, 2004, p. 14.
"Young Black Pilots Make Flight History," Blackcol legeview.com, www.blackcollegeview.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2004/10/25/417d31518da61 (March 3, 2005).