OLIVE BRANCH, Miss — The Luke Weathers Flight Academy is focusing on combatting the pilot shortage by training students of diverse backgrounds to be pilots at a cost these students can afford.
“I’m originally from Ghana, West Africa,” Brian Sarpong said. “I went to Middle Tennessee State University, graduated with a bachelors, and in the midst of trying to figure out what I really wanted to do -- and aviation was my passion. In Ghana, I lived right across from the airport, and I used to see the aircrafts take off and my grandfather was a military pilot, so I just always had a love for it.”
One of his favorite tools in the program is the flight simulator. For just $10 per hour, students can learn how to fly a plane from inside a building.
Like Sarpong, most students in the academy aren’t from the Mid-South. From San Francisco to North Carolina, the program pulls students in from everywhere.
“Just a few months ago, we actually had more Black female instructors – more female instructors in general – than we had male instructors,” Zakiya Percy, a flight instructor, said. “When I first started in aviation, it was a class of maybe 35, and only three of them were females.”
The academy and its umbrella organization – OBAP – the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, focuses on uplifting minorities in aviation.
“It is very different when you’re the only one of your kind in the room,” Percy said. “You kind of naturally miss certain opportunities just because you might not know about them – maybe you’re a first-generation aviation student. I think OBAP really helps fill the gap with that and that’s why it’s so important to have an organization like this.”
Co-director of the flight academy, Captain Glenn, said he thinks the program will improve the labor market.
“I think it’s added something to the labor market in terms of our ability to be able to reach those who may not normally have the opportunity of the financial means to be able to become a professional pilot,” Captain Glenn said.
“It’s like nurturing a flower and we’re like the flowers,” Sarpong said. “Literally you water them and it’s starting to grow and that’s what’s happening over here.”
Davion Lee also completed flight training at LWFA. Lee completed an accelerated flight program in two weeks and currently goes to school in New York, flying back to Olive Branch as often as he can.
“This place is second to none and now I’m at the point where I can give back so its like the program has done so much for me,” Lee said. “I did not see myself becoming a pilot and a flight instructor so young age. So, if I could do anything I possibly can to give back to this place, I’m gonna do it.”