Gabrielle Flowers, 16, strapped herself into the passenger seat of a Cessna 172 as it sat on the runway while veteran pilot Bob McDaniel explained that when he pushed the throttle forward and the aircraft reached 65 miles per hour she would flying for the first time in her life.
Five minutes later the Cahokia High School junior was not only enjoying the scenery from 800 feet, she was at the controls, guiding the aircraft past the Gateway Arch. She would later say the experience scared the heck out of her. But after taking off from St. Louis Downtown Airport on Saturday morning, she calmly followed McDaniel’s directions through a headset and kept both hands firmly on the steering–wheel like “yoke” in front of her. Turn left, go left. Turn right, go right. She was smiling.
Flowers was one of about 50 minority and other students ages 10 to 19 who participated in the Legacy Flight Academy, which honors the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, an all black group of fighter pilots who distinguished themselves during World War 2 while escorting Allied bombers over Sicily and Germany. Because of the distinctive paint job on their P51 Mustang fighter planes, the unit was known as the “Red Tails.”
McDaniel and other members of the Experimental Aircraft Association, Chapter 64, made up of Southern Illinois and St. Louis based pilots, participated in the program for young students who wanted to see what it was like to go up in an airplane and actually hold the controls. Pilots used their own aircraft to take students on 20 minute flights that passed downtown St. Louis and flew north to the Horseshoe Lake area, then turned south, passing over Fairmount Race Track and Grizzlies Stadium before touching down back at the airport.
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Elke McIntosh, program director for the Upward Bound Program based at the Southern Illinois University Center in East St. Louis, brought Cahokia High School seniors Danielle Jackson and Tianna Fisher to the flight line.
“I think it’s great that this gives them the feel of aviation, something that’s right in their backyard that they might not otherwise get to experience,” McIntosh said.
Antonio Harris, a 17-year-old senior at Cahokia High School, said he “really enjoyed” the feel of controlling McDaniel’s airplane. “It was really something,” he said.
William Delmas of Webster Groves High School in Webster Groves, Mo., listened to pre-flight banter from pilot Woody Gray of Mascoutah, also a member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, as he sat in Gray’s highly equipped, single engine airplane while waiting to line up on the runway.
“This is a lighting scope, you don’t want to get caught in lightning,” said Gray, as Delmas scanned the complex instrument panel that included a special device that allows a pilot to track storm systems from 100 miles away.
But once in the air, things were relatively simple. Gray turned control over to Delmas who, as instructed, guided the aircraft along a highway 1,200 feet below.
“Not too low,” Gray warned, and Delmas gingerly each back on the yoke, causing the airplane’s nose to lift. “Not too high,” he said, and Delmas pushed the yoke forward causing the nose to dip.
“It was great to feel the airplane do what you wanted it to do,” Delmas said.
Major Keny Ruffin, an F-16 fighter jet pilot, was one of several Air Force officers who ran the program from a hangar close to the runway.
Ruffin, who is stationed at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., gave a lecture about the Tuskegee Airmen who, during the war, were not allowed to mingle with white pilots but trained and fought as a cohesive unit.
The “Eyes Above the Horizon ”program, Ruffin said, was started throughout the United States last year. He referred a reporter to a written statement that said the program was launched “to give under-represented minority youth an opportunity to develop an interest in the exciting field of aerospace through flight introductions, mentor ship and immersion into the rich history of the Tuskegee Airmen.”
McDaniel, the pilot who took Flowers aloft for the first time, is a former director of the airport in Cahokia.
After he and Flowers landed he chided a visitor that she wasn’t just a passenger, “she was a pilot.”
Flowers said she enjoyed her first flight, and the chance to actually fly the plane. But as for a career in aviation, she said that at this time she said an airplane looked a little “too big” and she would probably turn that down.