Low Hanging Fruit: Clustering Minority Pilot Training Students
In “Black Ceiling”, I made the point that clustering black student pilots and instructor pilots together had an extraordinary impact on the success rate of the student pilots. It had the effect of making the culture more supportive by providing same-race role models, influencing the handling of struggling minority students and, in some cases, influencing the decisions on whether or not to wash minority students out of training.
In “Black Ceiling” I showed that segregation resulted in a clustering of black pilots and had a significant part in the success of the Tuskegee Airmen, and that similar success was achieved again by a clustering “experiment” in the 1970s. When I used the word success in “Black Ceiling” to describe the outcome of clustering, I am specifically referring to lower pilot attrition and successful follow-on careers:
“that there had to be elements of their "experiment” that made them successful and that if these elements could be identified, they could be extracted and replicated. This is a crucial premise: there are lessons hidden in the Tuskegee Airmen “experiment” that if extracted and replicated can help the Air Force produce high caliber minority fighter pilots in large numbers as was done 70 years ago… I believe their different ecosystem though is the starting place to finding what made the Tuskegee Airmen successful. I do believe I have found several success factors that are still relevant for today’s training of minority pilots in the Air Force. Most of them were anecdotal or seemingly common sense and sat right there on the surface to be gleaned. The challenge was taking these hidden-in-plain-sight success principles and finding the empirical explanations to back them up.
For example it would be fairly easy for me as a black officer to understand why black pilots being trained in an all-black unit, with black mentors and one of the greatest black Air Force heroes as their leader would have more camaraderie and be more successful in training than in a setting typical of Air Force pilot training during my career. During my career, a black officer/pilot would have been in a predominately white unit with very few same-race peers, little or no same race mentors, and no senior role models of the same race, in a small town in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, etc. The challenge that I will answer in this book is to show empirically, from research what is painfully obvious to me as I look at the Tuskegee Airmen.” (Thompson, 2016)
Later in “Black Ceiling” I reported that the Air Force tried an experiment in which it clustered six black pilot training students and several black instructor pilots at one base. It was an experiment because the typical practice at the time often resulted in a black student in a SUPT class by himself.
I learned about the experiment from former Air Education and Training Command Vice Commander, Lt Gen John Hopper. I later met Larry “Jet” Jackson, who was a member of this experiment, and he told me how successful the experiment was. He also shared the success in “Flying Beyond the Barrier”: “There were six black guys - Afro Americans - with fro' s in my 75-03 UPT class. That was done intentionally by the Air Force as an experiment in 1973 because of the high UPT attrition rates for blacks in the early 70's. All of us graduated.” (Flying Beyond The Barrier Memoirs by Forty African American Airline Pilots, 2015).
In my interview with Lt Gen Hopper, I asked if the successful graduation rate was:
“because black IPs looked the other way at discrepancies to help their minority brethren succeed, he said no. He said that, in fact the black IPs were not matched with the black pilot candidates. He said that the reason the students were successful was that the black IPs served as role models, “faces that look like mine,” and demonstrated to black pilot candidates that it could be done. He said that for minority pilots the black IPs were “somebody you think you can approach to ask a question” and for non-minority IPs “to turn to with their questions on how best to get through to minority students.” He also stated that having black IPs in the “flight meetings,” where they discussed how to help the students that were doing poorly, was part of the success. Lt Gen Hopper called the experiment a “built-in peer group” to progress through pilot training.” (Thompson, 2016)
The black pilots in the clustering experiment in 1975 (Class 75-03) came from all the commissioning sources: USAFA, ROTC-HBCU, ROTC-large mainstream university and OTS. All six pilots in UPT class 75-03 graduated, a 100% graduation rate at a time when black pilots were washing out at a rate of 56% (Thompson, 2016).
This “test case” illustrates how elements of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment could be replicated today. The clustering of these six men appears to have been helpful in their creation of their own mini-culture within the culture of their SUPT class at Vance AFB, OK. This clustering experiment also showed that when some of the negative cultural impacts (lack of same-race peers, lack of same-race role models) are mitigated, the success can be astonishing (Thompson, 2016).
As part of my interviews for this book, I
interviewed Bill Norwood, a SUPT student in 1960. He
explained that the Air Force understood the negative
impacts of having a single black student in a class nearly
60 years ago and started the practice of clustering black
students in pilot training:
Bill: A friend of mine who went to Selma after I did, and they had only one black in the training. They petitioned and got the situation where they would no longer send only one black to pilot training in Selma.
Ivan: Oh wow.
Bill: They send two or more.
Recently I discovered another bit of the Air Force’s past history experimenting with clustering that also occurred in the early 1970s. F. E. Chuck Rich, Leon Johnson (now Brigadier General retired), and Tony Marshall gathered “facts and figures” aimed at “convincing the USAF to have at least two minority pilots per class in UPT to assist with their assimilation into the Air Force. This proved to be a very effective training model and the minority attrition rate dropped significantly.” (Flying Beyond The Barrier Memoirs by Forty African American Airline Pilots, 2015)
Though I have not been able to gather any data to quantify the specific impact on minority attrition rate I did speak with Tony Marshall. He said the Air Force implemented this clustering practice by telling him that he was limited to two choices for SUPT bases, Williams Air Force Base (AFB) and Vance AFB at that time. When he arrived at Williams in 1974 a number of black student pilot trainees were there including Chuck Rich and Leon Johnson.
I have not yet been able to determine whether the efforts of Rich, Johnson, and Marshall led to the clustering experiment involving Larry “Jet” Jackson in the class 75-03 or not. However, one thing is clear: despite the success of the experiments the Air Force decided not to repeat the clustering of minority student pilots.
In “Black Ceiling” I said that I didn’t believe that the Air Force of the mid-1970s was ready for a large influx of black pilots, certainly not fighter pilots. I linked that conclusion to the targeted and disproportionate reduction of minority fighter pilots that occurred during the Gen Wilbur Creech era (see “Black Ceiling” Chapter entitled the “Great Black Out”).
The Air Force also discontinued the practice of ensuring that there were at least two minority pilots per class, despite the seemingly obvious value in assisting the assimilation of minorities, and the reported value in lowering minority pilot attrition. I don’t know why the Air Force discontinued the practice, but the fact that it was discontinued is evident in the survey data that I have gathered from black pilots who attended training in the 1990s. As you read through the survey responses later in this book, you will see several students (for example in the quotes below) referring to the challenges of being the only black student in their SUPT class.
In your opinion, does it make a difference, regarding your success, how many other black pilots are going through training at the same time as you? Why or why not? “HUGE difference. I felt alone.” (1987 SUPT student)
…because I'm the only black student, I get away with nothing and I get noticed for everything purely because I stick out. My ability to blend in an all-white class doesn't exist. If I'm late for a brief, screw up a stand-up scenario, fly poorly, am out sick etc., it will inherently stand out in their minds because of how the brain works. At the same time, if I do really well it didn't go unnoticed either. I don't know if it carried the same weight though and I definitely was never going to get the halo effect. The white students kind of all just blend together so if someone does something dumb or dangerous, they'll be under the microscope for a bit then it'll fade. I knew that if the IPs had a meeting about me, they would remember every lacking performance I ever had because I don't blend at all and the human brain would easily recall it as a "yeah he's had a history of problems" or "didn't he have this same issue last month/last phase?" (2005 SUPT student)
In 1990 a group of black student pilots decided to cluster themselves at Vance AFB. Several student pilots from the Air Force Academy class of 1989 all decided to choose Vance AFB base as their choice for SUPT. One of the biggest reasons for this was that General “Fig” Newton was the Wing Commander there, he was the Air Force’s first black Thunderbird pilot. He also went on to become the Air Force’s first, and as of this date only, black commander of a fighter wing in the Continental United States.
The black USAFA graduates felt that they would have a better chance of success in pilot training with a black wing commander. Grasping the underpinnings of their choice is critical to gaining an insight into minority culture. I highlight it because I don’t want my non-minority readers to miss it. It is still true to a large extent in black culture that black people feel they will be treated better by black leaders. Anyone who attempts to gloss over this cultural difference risks missing the chance of coming to a greater understanding of black culture and how black people, in general, view leadership demographics.
In my own experience, and in reading the survey data, it seems that the sentiment that having a black leader is essential to success has diminished among black people over time. However, it was still such an important staple of black culture in 1989 that a group of black USAFA students used it as the determining factor in their selection of a SUPT base. Someone even coined the phrase “have a chance at Vance.” This phrase wasn’t coined in the 1960s or 1970s; this was in early 1990.
In this self-clustering effort by the USAFA Class of 1989, many of the factors that made the Tuskegee Airmen successful were present. The Tuskegee Airmen had the most legendary black senior leader of their generation in Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. In 1990, at Vance AFB, the black students had one of the most successful black leaders of their generation in General Newton.
By clustering themselves together, though in significantly smaller numbers than those who passed through Tuskegee, the black students at Vance achieved enough mass to develop the same type of supportive ecosystem that the Tuskegee Airmen had as a result of segregation, and that had been achieved by the Air Force’s experiment in the 1970s.
Not only did the 1989 USAFA students achieve the same type of supportive culture by self-clustering at Vance, they also achieved the same type of success. Their washout rate was significantly lower than the existing washout rate for black pilots, and their clustering initiative also positively influenced the washout rate of the other non-USAFA black pilots that were students in training at Vance AFB at the same time.
We can look at nature, at something simple, like plants, and easily recognize that each plant needs specific conditions in order to grow. Some plants need more sunlight. Some need more water. Some need a certain type of soil to thrive. With black student pilots, it is obvious to me that they need just enough students and role models to achieve a mini-ecosystem. Specifically, enough minority peers and superiors to create just enough support in a majority culture that is not ideally suited to them, in its naturally occurring construct.
Here is the perception of one SUPT student who reported that the Air Force did the reverse of clustering during his SUPT class with negative effects:
I believe it does, as there appears to be a “standard” the courses are attempting to maintain. A quota if you will. I noticed the minorities (Blacks) in the classes although starting at the same time, were spaced out accordingly in the classes to facilitate what appeared to be each class having at least one. This did affect how we perceived and received training believing we had to measure up to a higher standard.
2001 Black Male SUPT Student
I can hear the voices of those non-minorities that would say “Why do we have to do something different for black pilots?” I wish I could point to a case at a pilot training base in which a white student was in the minority. Perhaps at a fictitious base located in an inner city like Chicago or Brooklyn, where 95% of the students were black, and 98% of the instructors were black, and 100% of the senior leaders were black. In addition, all the tangible, discernible elements of the culture would be heavily influenced by black culture. Perhaps then, and only then, could some of these voices begin to see the importance of what I am talking about.
I recently heard an example of what I’m trying to get at in a discussion of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The discussion was about why Kevin Love, one of the few—if not only—white players who were struggling. One of the broadcast announcers, a former Cavalier, felt that Kevin wasn’t fitting into the predominantly black culture that existed with the Cavaliers and LeBron James.
I found this fascinating, as it was a rare example of discussing the performance impacts on a white male, simply because he was in a culture where he was the clear minority. From all indications there were no questions about his skill, he was an All-Star player.
The only question was the performance impact that resulted in him being, in a sense, a minority in the locker room. It fascinated me, because a big deal was being made of something that black Air Force officers face on a daily basis, and black student pilots to an even greater degree because of their demographics and the Air Force’s SUPT assignment practices.
I believe the sequencing and assigning of black SUPT students in a manner that best contributes towards their success is a piece of “low hanging fruit” for the Air Force’s senior leadership. The success of clustering was demonstrated in the 1940s, 1960s, 1970s, and again in the 1990s. This small change would not require a great investment in cost, nor would it create a great upheaval to the Air Force’s existing culture—especially given the small numbers of black pilot training students in any given year.
The quote from the Air Force Chief of Staff below shows that the Air Force is considering clustering again. In my opinion, this is an easy and quick win for its fighter pilot diversity efforts:
The Air Force’s pilot shortage crisis offers “an opportunity for bold moves” to build the service’s diversity while correcting the growing deficit in aviators, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Wednesday at the conclusion of a daylong summit on the problem. Those moves might include grouping minority pilot trainees together at flight school in order to have a built-in support system… (Tirpak, 2018)
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