Some people dream they can fly.

Others work to make such dreams come true.

Donnie Gardner, Floyd Balentine and Vic Smith, Black airline pilots who doggedly pursued opportunities to soar even when their skies weren't easy to navigate, want to smooth the route. Since 2014, their Twin Cities Aerospace Career Education Academy summer camps are feeding the dream for future pilots, astronauts and engineers of color.

The Twin Cities academy is one of more than 30 camps associated with the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals.

"If you see someone who looks like you, that is a very motivating thing," said Gardner, 36.

Said Balentine, 47: "We are using everything within us to inspire the next generation."

Their camps are open to anyone ages 13 to 18 with good grades. The program was started not just to lower barriers to flying among young African Americans, but also to spark their aerospace industry dreams.

"We did it because it simply has to be done," said Smith, 61.

Of the 158,000 people who were listed as pilots or flight engineers in 2021 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data, less than 4% were Black. Only about 2% of commercial airline pilots are Black, Balentine said.

They each came to a career in the skies at different times but in strikingly similar ways. All three admitted to boyhood dreams filled with airplanes and pilots' uniforms. Each had a different idea about how realistic that was.

Vic Smith's story

Smith grew up in Memphis with a strong desire to fly. But living in a place "right in the heart of where Blacks were denied everything," he said he couldn't conceive of the possibility of becoming a pilot.

"Even my mother said that's only for white folks," he said.

His father had served in the European theater during World War II, a skilled mechanic relegated to driving officers around, he said. Once he got out of the military, Smith said his father went to a local Sears store to apply for a job as a fleet mechanic.

"He said everything went great," Smith said. "It was a rainy day and he realized he forgot his umbrella. When he went back in, he saw the lady throwing his application in the garbage can."

Smith's father worked as a laborer at Sears for 33 years. Still, he planted a love of flight in his son by taking him to air shows.

After taking up bass guitar at 11 or 12, the younger Smith majored in music composition, earning a degree at Memphis State University. He still plays jazz in clubs today.

But the pilot dream persisted.

"I was practicing for my musical presentations to prepare for my degree," Smith said. "After rehearsal, my friend said, 'I'm going flying, why don't you come with me?'"

A flight in a Cessna 172 from Memphis to Jackson, Miss., was all it took.

"When I got back, I decided this is what I'm doing."

Smith's mom, a nurse, worked extra shifts to help her son pay for flying lessons with a former military aviator. He started flying at 23 and kept learning while working as a musician. He gained his instrument rating and became a flight instructor. He later got a job flying freight in Florida, before moving on to commuter airlines. In 1998, Smith joined Delta Airlines and is now a captain.

He's married and has three children, ages 21, 18 and 13. He and his wife, Trina, also run a food truck.

Floyd Balentine's story

Balentine said he knew at age 5 that he wanted to be a pilot.

He grew up in the projects of north Minneapolis, the youngest of three boys born to a single mom. She worked in housekeeping in nursing homes her whole life, and there wasn't much money.

But his mother would take him to Chicago and to Arkansas to visit her family.

"She hated driving, so we flew," he said. "I loved the pilots in their uniforms. The pilots in the cockpit. They used to let me pull some switches."

Sometimes, he and his mother would take the bus to Post Road near the airport just to watch the planes land, Balentine said.

"She opened my mind, my prospects," he said. "She taught me to work hard and believe in myself."

After graduating from North High, Balentine knew that if he wanted to go to college, he would have to pay for much of it himself. He chose St. Cloud State because it had an aviation program. Two weeks after graduating from high school, he was in a summer program on campus.

"I told myself, I'm not going to make any excuses to not go to college," he said.

He joined organizations, took a public speaking course and worked a variety of jobs to help pay for school — such as camp counselor and resident hall advisor — and graduated with a degree in aviation.

While becoming a pilot, he paid for flight lessons by driving carts around for a couple years for Mesaba Airlines. He also worked as a certified flight instructor. After 16 years as a pilot for regional airlines, Balentine went to work for United.

He and his wife, Dee, have two sons, ages 16 and 18. His mother, Annie Balentine, died Dec. 20.

"As a kid I watched my mother really sacrifice," he said. "I wanted her sacrifice to pay off."

Donnie Gardner's story

Gardner said he's always been mesmerized by flight.

He grew up in Kansas City, Mo. On family trips to California, "I'd board an airplane and three and a half hours later, I'm on a beach."

His fascination with flight soared after his parents divorced. He would spend time at his grandparents' house when his mother, a doctor, was on call. They lived beneath the approaching flight path to the Kansas City airport. Gardner sat in the yard as the planes roared overhead.

But the real turning point, he said, came during his freshman year of high school. Gardner's grades "weren't the best" and his mother told him that if he did well in the first quarter of 10th grade, she would take him to flying lessons at the Kansas City downtown airport.

"I was an only child," he said. "And she had a mother-bear grip."

He had his first solo flight at 16, even before he got his driver's license. He earned his pilot's license his senior year. He attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., graduating in 2007.

After years working as a flight instructor, then as a commuter airline pilot, he was hired by United.

During the pandemic, while much of the airline industry paused, Gardner's aviation interests took a different tack. He started a business selling die cast models of airplanes. He blames his dad.

"I found out a few years ago that Dad was a huge aviation enthusiast," Gardner said.

Really, though, the clues were there, starting with his father showing him his model airplane collection. Gardner's father, too, had wanted to be a pilot. Growing up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in the 1950s and '60s, he just didn't know how.

"He'd write and call the airlines, but they'd never call him back," Gardner said.

So, when Gardner was grounded for nine months by the pandemic, he started an e-commerce business. Sales took off. So much so that Gardner's business — DG Pilot Aviation Collectibles & More — outgrew its St. Paul Lowertown warehouse. It's now a brickand-mortar store in the Hamm Building on St. Peter Street.

His father tracks his son's flights all over the world. Gardner said his story, and those of his colleagues, is a major reason they got involved in the Aerospace Career Education Academy. Whetting young people's appetites and easing their career exploration are the goals.

"I don't want any individual not to know how to go into aviation," he said.