About a week before Thanksgiving 2019, 40 kids who had never flown before took flight at Gastonia Municipal Airport (KAKH) in North Carolina. While similar to Young Eagles flights, these flights were done by Fly For The Culture, a non-profit that introduces aviation to minority kids.
“Kids have to see it to believe it,” says Courtland Savage, the 28-year-old pilot who started Fly For The Culture in March 2018. “As we get older, we forget what it’s like to be a kid. We say, ‘You can do anything you want to do, all you’ve got to do is try.’ But they’re kids, their minds aren’t fully developed. They literally have to see it to believe it.”
That’s one of the reasons for the lack of diversity in aviation, he says, noting that just 3% of airline pilots are black, while just 6% are women.
“So I created a platform where we showcase women and minorities flying aircraft and the kids are seeing it and getting a chance to fly with them,” he says.
He points to Boeing’s forecast that 804,000 new pilots will be needed by 2030.
“Why not help fix the pilot shortage by getting more minorities and women involved?” he says.
It’s a win-win — the airlines can fill their vacancies, while kids who never looked skyward before Fly For The Culture discover a love of flight — and a great career.
How Fly For The Culture Works
The non-profit organization invites minority kids out to the airport to see airplanes, talk to pilots, and take a flight. At its latest event, it even gave away 100 free turkeys.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen the airport in Gastonia so diverse, with different people from different backgrounds,” Courtland recalls.
And that’s what so cool about Fly For The Culture — and actually where the organization’s name came from.
“Aviation brings people together from all different cultures, who all bond through the love of aviation,” he says. “That is what I experienced yesterday and it was beautiful.”
He adds that the airport regulars, as well as CFIs from the flight school Academy of Aviation, were helping out in any way they could during the event.
“Everybody realized that we’re bonding through the love of aviation — or the newfound love of aviation in the kids, who wanted to be teachers, but now they want to be pilots. So that’s what Fly For The Culture means — bringing different cultures together through the love of aviation.”
Courtland was one of those kids who never thought about becoming a pilot. He thanks President Barack Obama for getting him into the air.
In 2008, Courtland was a 17-year-old senior at East Gaston High School in Mount Holly, N.C., with no clue what he wanted to do after he graduated.
“I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go. I always knew I like to do things a little different than the norm for what you expect African Americans to do, with entertainment, or basketball, or sports and stuff like that. I wanted to do something different and it just so happens I was kind of inspired.”
A very “jokey” person, the high school senior told his friends “if a black man becomes president, I’m going to fly a plane.”
“And he actually got elected and I was like, ‘ok, let me look into it.’”
He discovered there was a flight school, Premier Air, just up the street at Lincolnton-Lincoln County Regional Airport (KIPJ). He went to the airport and took an introductory flight.
He knew the moment the airplane took off — “I don’t even think we were 1,000’ in the air” — that this was it for him. He immediately fell in love with flight.
He ran home to tell his parents he had found his passion. They agreed to co-sign a loan for his pilot training.
Still a senior in high school, he worked at a hospital washing pots and pans. When he’d get a day off, he’d head straight to the airport to train. It took him three or four months, but he earned his private pilot certificate when he was 17.
He enlisted in the Air Force, where he served as a reserve crew chief on the C-17 Globemaster at Charleston Air Force Base in South Carolina before flying the F/A-18 Super Hornet as a Naval Aviator.
Now 10 years later, he’s a pilot for GoJet Airlines, a regional airline for Delta and United, flying the 50-seat CRJ550 jet, based out of Greensboro, N.C.
Plans for Growth
When he’s not flying for the airline, the father of two boys is busy as the driving force behind Fly For The Culture, estimating he spends up to five hours a day on the non-profit.
“I’m the guy that’s posting on social media, I’m the guy creating a website, I’m the guy answering the emails, I’m the one flying the kids,” he recounts.
He adds the organization just formed a nine person board of directors, so he will relinquish some of those duties to board members.
“My mom and dad help out a lot too,” he adds.
At the last event, his parents picked up the turkeys that were given away and handed them out to the families at the airport.
He also realizes that for the organization to grow, more pilots will be needed. That was a problem before because of insurance requirements. A good portion of the organization’s initial donations went to general liability insurance, hiring lawyers to review waivers, and other necessary items. Now that all of that is in place, other pilots can begin to fly kids as well.
Courtland also realizes the organization needs a plane. Right now it rents aircraft through its partners Premier Air and Academy of Aviation, a flight school that has locations in Gastonia, as well as White Plains and Farmingdale, New York.
Both let Fly For The Culture rent the planes at a discounted rate. At the pre-Thanksgiving event, Academy of Aviation also opened its facilities to the kids, as well as let its CFIs help with the event, showing the kids the simulator and the airplanes.
One of the CFIs also offered to fly some of the kids, which was allowable under the agreement the organization has with the flight school.
While he’s not a CFI, he says his goal is to recruit “fresh CFIs” looking to build time. It’s another win-win, he says.
The CFIs will help the organization grow, while gaining experience, hours, and volunteer work that they can use on their applications for college and jobs.
The CFIs also have experience dealing with all kinds of new flyers — from those who are excited, to those who are nervous, to those who are terrified.
While many of the kids — and their parents — start the flight terrified, most calm down in just a few minutes, according to Courtland.
“You can see it in some of our videos,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is fun. This is the best day of my life.’”
When he hears that, he says it’s the greatest feeling ever.
“I’m not only doing what I love, I’m exposing it to someone who probably would have never gotten the chance,” he says. “These kids had never even been to an airport, much less flew in a plane.”
He notes that many of the kids he’s trying to reach live in really bad neighborhoods.
“They don’t have money for an introductory flight,” he notes. “Some of these kids have parents who don’t even have cars or the ability to get the airport. These kids never get a chance. So I want to go into these neighborhoods and bring them to the airport and expose them to something that they never even thought existed. It’s just giving every kid a chance.”
And those experiences need to happen when the kids are younger, starting around 5, he says. Once they’ve taken flight, the kids’ desire to be pilots can grow as they grow up, he says.
“And when they turn old enough to fly, they really pursue it,” he says.
But he doesn’t limit it to the youngest kids. He’s also reaching out to people who were like him, finishing up high school with no clue what to do next.
“Or you’ve got the kid who’s in college and having second thoughts on the career field they are pursuing,” he says. “And then they look up Fly For The Culture on Instagram because it’s trending and they think, ‘I’ve never thought about that. I want to be a pilot now. And they contact us. That’s happening a lot.”
Instagram is the No. 1 way Fly For The Culture spreads the word about the organization and its events.
“It’s the power of social media,” he says. “It’s literally all it takes.”
He notes that when you put something unique on Instagram, people get attracted to it. They follow it and share with their friends and it grows from there.
While Instagram is what the kids are following, he also posts on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn for the older crowds.
He recalls that for the latest event before Thanksgiving, he paid Facebook $30 to boost the event.
“We created the event and shared it, and then another person shared it, and then another. One minute we had so many turkeys, we couldn’t give them away, and then one person said, ‘hey, I can share it with my people, if you don’t mind?’ Literally 10 minutes later, every turkey was gone and there were too many people at the airport to fly. It was that easy.”
How You Can Help
As a new non-profit, Fly For The Culture could use help, from airports and organizations offering to host events, to the ultimate dream — someone donating a plane.
And, of course, like any non-profit, monetary donations are always welcome. All donations are tax-deductible.
“But it’s not just monetary donations,” he says. “We had a individual donate these cartoon comic books called Tuskegee Heirs. Anything aviation related that the kids might like are welcome as well — any type of cool new aviation gear, magazines, posters.”
He adds that Bose donated six A20 headsets to the organization, while ForeFlight donated a program for Courtland to use when he flies.
And while flying in a real general aviation aircraft is great, not all the events include flying, he notes. Flight school simulators are a big draw for the kids, as well as drones, and tours of ATC towers, FBOs, and maintenance companies.
“It’s about exposing all these different fields in aviation to the kids,” he continues. “So it would be great if any individuals who are part of these different fields in the aviation industry are willing to donate their time or help out.”
Courtland, who admits he hasn’t been the best about tracking how many kids he’s flown, estimates it’s more than 100.
The first was his cousin, who is “all into aviation now. He shows up at every event ready to go. All he wants to do is be a pilot.”
And he’s not alone.
“I haven’t flown a kid yet who didn’t want to be a pilot,” Courtland says.