Delaware State pays homage to Tuskegee Airmen with new planes

A flight-training program that traces its lineage to the Tuskegee Airmen is expanding with new planes.

Sophomore Christian Black stands next to a new Vulcanair plane that he’ll be training on at Delaware State University. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Sophomore Christian Black stands next to a new Vulcanair plane that he’ll be training on at Delaware State University. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Student pilots at Delaware State University will soon be training on 10 new Vulcanair V1 airplanes and a new twin-engine Piper thanks to $3.4 million in funding from the General Assembly. 

The new planes are a big upgrade from the 1975 Piper Warrior planes the program has been flying.

“This airplane is lighter and so, therefore, with the horsepower-to-weight ratio, I’m faster, I’m cruising at a higher speed, which is good, because as a pilot, you’ve got to think ahead of the aircraft,” said aviation director Lt. Col. Michael Hales.

The new planes, which cost $261,000 each, have 180-horsepower engines compared to 161-horsepower engines in the Pipers. The V1s also have the latest instruments with digital screens instead of analog gauges.

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“We’re excited about that, those kind of technological advances that we’ve just never had access to, but now we do because we have new airplanes,” Hales said.

The improved cockpit technology will help keep graduates up to speed on how to operate the commercial planes regional and national airlines are flying today — though learning on older planes doesn’t appear to have hurt job prospects for DSU grads. The school says 100% of students who graduate from the professional pilot program have found work in their field.

DSU Board of Trustees chair Devona Williams said alumni are working at every airline in the country in some capacity. 

“They are true ambassadors, demonstrating to the world that Delaware State University is the place that provides well-trained and prepared pilots and aviation management staff to fulfill the needs of the workforce,” she said.

Airlines are very eager to hire students out of the program, Hales said.

“It’s almost like a sucking sound because the airlines come in and they are like, ‘Who’s ready? Who can go? We want to talk to your students.’”

He said that demand for DSU students is due to the quality of their education, but also evidence of the shortage of trained commercial pilots that airlines are facing. That shortage is growing, in part, because airlines have an aging workforce, especially considering that commercial pilots have to retire at age 65.

Hales hopes DSU students can continue to fill those jobs as the school adds even more planes and expanded facilities in the coming years. In addition to the 11 planes it’s getting this year, he said the school has pledged to buy another new plane every year through 2028. 

“Now that we’ve increased our footprint here on this Delaware Airpark, we need a hangar, we need maintenance facilities that are able to handle the number of aircraft, the increased number of aircraft that we have,” Hales said. “We’ve always kind of thought small; now we need to expand in that area as well.”

Delaware State University’s aviation program started in 1939 as one of six historically black colleges and universities added to the government-sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program. Civil rights leaders fought to get training at historically black colleges after those schools were initially left out of the training program. Eventually, some of those DSU student pilots became the first black military flyers after training at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

Since 1987, Delaware State University aviation students have been learning on older planes like this 1975 Piper Warrior. (Mark Eichmann/WHYY)

Norman Thomas, one of those original Tuskegee Airmen, was at the Delaware Airpark in Cheswold as school officials christened a new plane. He said getting state money for brand-new planes was unheard of when he was training.

“When we were in school in the ‘40s, we were just given tokens of everything, and now here we are giving out 11 planes. That’s quite a feat,” he said.

Thomas, who graduated from DSU in 1950, is a part of the Philadelphia chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. Every year for the past decade, the group has selected a DSU student pilot to receive a $3,500 scholarship.

After World War II, the aviation program at DSU languished before getting rebooted in 1987. Since the program restarted, all the school’s planes have been painted with red tails, which have become a symbol of the Tuskegee Airmen and the planes they flew in World War II.

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