CHICAGO – On her toughest days, Selena Berry would look to the sky and imagine herself soaring high in the clouds above her troubled Englewood neighborhood and hardscrabble middle school.
Thinking of being in the sky brought the 17-year-old some respite. That's when she first began fantasizing about piloting airplanes.
"Flying makes you feel big," said Berry. "You are on top of everything. Untouchable. You look down and all you see is the view, the beauty."
This summer, Berry is one of eight black students in the Chicago area enrolled in a new program to learn how to fly and obtain a private pilot's license. The initiative, Tuskegee Next, is a special effort to increase the number of African-Americans who can work as pilots, said Stephen L. Davis, who owns a lighting company based in Wheaton and founded the organization.
The main mission of the group is to help students follow the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, the country's first black military aviators, Davis said. Once the students obtain certificates to fly private airplanes, they are on a path to learn how to fly commercial airliners.
"There is a need, and there are students with great potential," Davis said. "I thought, 'How can I bring this all together and create a program to help urban kids?' That's how this idea was born."
For much of his life, Davis, the first black to serve as chairman of the DuPage County Airport Authority Board, wanted to become a pilot, but couldn't afford the expensive schooling, he said. By the time he could afford lessons, he had a wife and children and didn't want to take the risk.
"When you don't see black pilots, you don't think you can do it," he said. "Even if these kids don't become pilots, learning to fly will give them confidence to do other great things. They will have the acumen, the math and science training that can take them as far as they want to go."
It costs about $25,000 to take the lessons and pay for the flying time, officials said.
Davis has paid for the students' classes at the Illinois Aviation Academy at DuPage Airport by donating some of the money himself and raising it through his connections and private organizations.
The Federal Aviation Administration tracks pilots by sex but does not keep statistics on ethnicity or race, agency officials said. But according to the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, fewer than 2 percent of the nearly 600,000 licensed pilots in the U.S. are blacks.
"The biggest reason African-Americans are underrepresented in flying is just plain old lack of exposure," said James Gordon, the president of the aerospace group. "For too many African-Americans, they will never see or meet a pilot of color and when they do, it's from afar."