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Chicago teen lands in Greene County during tour to recognize HBCU's role in the history of aviation

Courtesy Of Marsha Bonhart
Zaire Horton with his teddy bear, Solo. Wilberforce University is his first stop on his tour to recognize the university for it's role in opening up the skies for Black men and women in the early 1940's.

Zaire Horton is only 16 years old but he’s already got a license to fly his Pipistrel motor glider. He began flying Cessna planes and Taildaggers while he was 14 and a Freshman at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy in Chicago.

Horton said he flew to Ohio — which is also his first stop on his trip — to show that young people with socioeconomic barriers can have a career in aviation. But he also wants to recognize Wilbeforce’s historic efforts to make aviation more accessible.

“Basically this trip is to show people that you can actually be this young and do a cross country,” Horton said. “We just figured that it would be a great idea to just bring up the history, first of all, because this history hasn't been talked about.”

Courtesy Of Marsha Bonhart
Horton began his flight in Chicago and landed at Lewis Jackson Airport in Xenia for his visit to Wilberforce University which was his first stop in his solo flight.

He was originally set on joining the basketball team. Instead, he joined the Coffey School of Aeronautics NEXT — a student-run after school program that preserves African American aviation heritage and mentors young teens how to pilot a plane.

Horton’s after school program takes it's name directly from the original Coffey School of Aeronautics founded in 1938 in Chicago by Cornelius Coffey and his then wife Willa Beatrice Brown. Both are seen by historians as instrumental figures in Black history aviation.

The Coffey school taught many influential flight instructions, many of whom went to become instructors for the Tuskegee Airmen in Alabama. Coffey even taught Lewis A. Jackson — for whom the airport in Greene County is named after. It was the same airport Horton landed on Sunday as a nod to the late Black aviation pioneer.

In the late 1930’s, then Wilberforce President Ormonde Walker lobbied President Franklin Rosevelt to allow Black pilots to participate in a government sponsored training program. The Civilian Pilot Training Act of 1939 allowed the FAA’s predecessor agency, the Civil Aeronautics Authority to train civilian pilots through educational institutions.

The program, however, excluded African American pilots. Several HBCU administrators wrote letters and pushed the federal government to ask that African Americans be included.

FDR agreed, and historians say that move led to more people in aviation and opened up the skies for Black men and women. Umberto Ricco, Hortons mentor, said much of the history isn’t recognized.

He added most people don’t realize Tuskegee wasn’t the only HBCU to train Black pilots during WWII: “Dayton, Ohio and this region is still very important to African-American history and aviation.”

Six other HBCU’s were approved for the Civil Aeronautics Authority. Although Wilberforce was a strong advocate for the program, it never was approved for it. And no one knows exactly why according to Ricco.

“This is one of the reasons that we're on the trip is to bring the history up,” Ricco said. “We're kind of recreating history because this is what the pilots from Chicago did. They didn't just talk about things. They did things.

Regardless, Horton want’s to make sure that history in Wilberforce and other HBCU colleges isn’t forgotten, and that students don’t have to wait for their institution to establish their own aviation program. Instead, they can fund a student-run club like his.

“I just want to show people that you can just do something else and try something new,” Horton said. “It doesn't have to be aviation, but I just feel like you should always try something new.”

Horton is not alone; he’s flying along with his teddy bear, Solo. Ricco is following him by car too along with another teammate from his club. His next stop is Alabama to visit Tuskegee University.

Alejandro Figueroa is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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Alejandro Figueroa