EAST ORANGE, N.J. — For 11 years, the Rev. Russell White, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in this 85% black New Jersey city, has operated Eagle Flight, a flying academy for inner-city high school youths.
To date, 239 have graduated from the program, each with several hours in the air with flight instructions. Forty-four young men and six young women are currently enrolled.
Eight Eagle Flight graduates are airline and corporate jet pilots, one graduated from the Air Force Academy and is a military pilot, five are currently enrolled at the Air Force Academy and 35 others have their private pilot's licenses.
"Many of these kids were right off the street, gang members hanging in the projects looking for trouble, on the verge of dropping out of school before getting into Rev. White's program," said Joseph Jenkins, 42, business administrator for the city of East Orange, population 82,000.
"There are a lot of drug pushers, junkies and winos in this community. Rev. White is preventing kids from being destroyed. He is turning them in the right direction, giving purpose to their lives," Jenkins added.
There isn't another flying school for minority youths like it anywhere in the country.
White, 52, an Army sergeant stationed in Germany during the early 1950s, has been pastor of East Orange's Bethel Baptist Church the past 20 years.
Eagle Flight is a quasi-military program. Cadets wear U.S. Air Force Academy uniforms donated by the Air Force. Discipline is the key to its success. Cadets 11 to 18 years old have their own drill team which frequently marches in parades and appears at special events.
Idea Was Born in 1975
It was while White, in addition to his church duties, was working as a discipline officer at an East Orange high school in 1975 that he decided to start his Eagle Flight Training Program.
"I was spending much of my time counseling kids who were getting into trouble, kids cutting classes, kids dropping out, kids on dope. All my life I have been nuts about flying. I built model airplanes as a kid. 'Smilin' Jack' was my favorite comic strip. When I was in my early teens, I hung around the airport. I had my first flying lesson when I was 14," explained the gray-haired, gray-mustached minister who is also a private pilot.
White recalled that he wanted to be an airline pilot, but his high school guidance counselor discouraged him because at the time minority pilots were not being hired.
"I got the idea to get these kids on the right track, to instill self-reliance, self-confidence, I should teach them how to fly. Most of these kids had never flown in an airplane, never even seen one up close," said the Baptist pastor.
So, White started his flying school in the basement of the church weekday evenings.
Irving Carter, 25, one of the six originals of the Eagle Flight Training Program, for the past two years has been a People Express flight engineer, the third pilot in the cockpit of a Boeing 747 flying between New York, London and Brussels, between Newark and Los Angeles.
"When 'Rev.' (Carter, like many, call the minister Rev.) started his flight academy, people in East Orange thought he was crazy. No one believed it would work. They thought the whole idea too far out, too dangerous. A doctor or a lawyer was one thing, but a pilot, no way," Carter recalled.
"Becoming a pilot is something kids from black neighborhoods never think about. They don't know about it. They never see pilots in their neighborhoods."
Carter, who at 23 became the youngest pilot ever hired by People Express, noted that out of 42,000 professional pilots who make a living flying in America, fewer than 200 are black. He is an active member of the National Black Airline Pilots Assn.
Bake Sales, Car Washes
"It was rough convincing people in the beginning we were for real," Carter said. "The Rev. kept pushing it. We would have bake sales, go out on the parkway to collect quarters, wash cars all day to make enough money for one of us kids to get a half-hour flying lesson."
After Carter graduated from high school in 1978, he went to Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., where he earned a degree in aeronautical science. He flew charters in the Caribbean and later was a pilot for Newair, a New Haven, Conn., commuter line, before being hired by People Express.
"My parents have modest incomes. Eagle Flight gave me an opportunity to make something of myself. I'll tell you the Rev. is a remarkable human being," Carter said.
Pastor White finds new recruits for his program by visiting local high schools.
"What do you want to do with your lives?" he asked a group of students recently. They answered: "Engineer," "football player," "model," "I don't know. . . . "
"Sit up straight, please," the minister admonished the sophomore who replied, "I don't know." The girl next to him said she wanted to be a pediatric nurse. "Why not a pediatric doctor? Set your sights high, young people," he urged.