Warren Hervey Wheeler was only 15 when he fell in love with flying.
An airplane salesman flew to Durham to try to sell his sister and her boyfriend a small plane.
Wheeler, the son of the now-deceased John H. Wheeler who led Durham-based Mechanics and Farmers Bank and was a leading civil rights and political figure, reluctantly tagged along on the demonstration flight.
"I didn't want to go," said Wheeler, who was more interested in boating at the time. "When we came down, they didn't buy the airplane but I was sold on flying."
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Fast forward nearly 60 years, and Wheeler, one of the nation's first black commercial pilots, the first African American to fly for Piedmont Airlines and the first to own and operate an air service in the U.S. -- Wheeler Airlines -- until its closure in 1991, is still in love with flying.
Wheeler Airlines carried some 40,000 passengers per year in its 1980s heyday.
Wheeler, now 74, doesn't get to fly much these days, but he's sharing his knowledge, resources and love of flying with area students as part of the Airolina Young Aviators Program (AYA). The nonprofit is a S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) program for high school students in Durham.
Wheeler said the program can help students perform better in the classroom.
"No, you just have to want to fly," Wheeler answered when asked if students had to be super smart in math to learn to fly. "You just have to want to fly, then the part you may not be so good at in school, you'll become good in it because you want to fly."
Wheeler said it took him a while to realize that what he was learning in flight school was math being taught in a different way.
"I'm doing these equations and triangles to figure out where the wind is and everything else, and I realize that, wait, this is geometry," Wheeler said. "When you gave it to me in a book and said this is geometry, learn this, it was boring and I couldn't figure it out. But when they gave it to me as a practical problem, the wind versus the course, and then all of sudden, it made sense. I fault the school system for not making math interesting and relevant."
In AYA, students receive introductory flight training, mentoring and can earn a basic (Private) Pilot Certificate after they complete the four-year program, which they start as high school freshmen. The program is in its third year, so no student has yet earned a pilot's license.
And while the program is open to all students, Wheeler believes its important to help prepare the next generation of black aviators for the opportunities that will present themselves over the next two decades as thousands of commercial pilots reach the mandatory retirement age of 65.
In the next 20 years, airlines in North America are going to need 117,000 new pilots, according to industry reports. In the past, the airlines could rely on the military and regional airlines to fill pilot jobs, but they too are struggling to find and keep aviators.
"That's not known," Wheeler said of the looming pilot shortage. "This shortage of pilots is coming and the opportunity that comes with it. Just tell me how many opportunities do kids have coming out of high school and going into college and coming out of college that will produce the returns that this one will."
Commercial airline pilots can earn good pay, particularly at the larger airlines. According to Glassdoor, a website where employees and former employees anonymously review companies and their management, the average U.S. airline pilot salary is $113,709. The larger airlines such as American, Delta and United Airlines pay more.
Wheeler said American Airlines, the nation's largest, will retire about 40 percent of its pilots over the next 15 years. He said that's less than the time it would take a freshman in his program this year to become qualified for one of those jobs.
"He's sitting there, they have to hire him," Wheeler said. "That's the best sales pitch I have."
But learning to fly is expensive, and once students move to the phase of training where they actually board an airplane for lessons, it can become too costly for many families.
AYA has stepped in to help defray the costs, but has found that increasingly difficult to do in recent months.
"We started off trying to pay for the flying training, but once we go to the airport, we have to try to get the families to come up with something," Wheeler said. "We can supplement it but we can't provide it for everybody. We have eight kids who should be out there flying every week but we can't do it."
The nonprofit will hold a Durham fundraiser Sunday, March 18 at 3 p.m. at the Beyu Caffe, 341 Main St., to raise money and build support for the program. Scheduled guests include U.S. Rep. David Price, D-N.C., Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority CEO Farad Ali, and Shirley Suber, United Airlines' first African-American female pilot who also flew for Wheeler's airline.
Price entered the program into the Congressional Record and will present AYA with a notification of that honor.
Tickets to the event can be purchased at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/airolina-young-aviators-benefit-tickets-42515706623. Donations can be made at airolina.org.
Today, flying lessons cost about $180 an hour, compared to the $14 an hour Wheeler paid for lessons after he caught the flying bug in the early 1960s.
At $180 an hour, it would cost a student $7,200 to earn a basic pilot's license. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires 40 hours of flight time in addition to passing the FAA Private Pilot written exam and the Private Pilot Oral and Practical (Flying) Exam to earn a pilot's license.
AYA has 22 students in its program now, eight of whom are either taking flying lessons or eligible to do so. The others practice on a flight simulator in the basement of the Hayti Heritage Center on Fayetteville Street.
Jordan Griffith, a junior at Hillside High School, already has a little more than 60 hours of flying time under his belt and holds a student pilot certificate, which allows him to fly solo, but he cannot carry passengers. He hopes to earn his full pilot's license this summer.
Griffith, whose license plate reads, "BLK Pilot," made his first solo flight last summer and first solo flight across North Carolina in January.
"It was a little nerve wracking, but once I leveled off and became comfortable in the air, I knew what I was doing and my instructor trained me well, it became easier," Griffith said, shortly before he demonstrated a short flight on the simulator. "There were no mishaps. Everything went as planned and the flight was a success."
Griffith most recently flew solo to Kinston, Wilmington and back.
"That flight alone cost over $400 for a four-hour flight," Griffith said. "That was a big expense but I was able to do it myself because I have money saved in advance."
AYA was helping Griffith with his expenses, but had to stop about two months ago because it no longer had the money to do so.
"The program was helping but that got cut off and I've been paying on my own," Griffith said "I have money saved up and I'm able to do that and finish on my own."
Griffith said that he is fortunate to be able pay for his flying lessons en route to what he hopes turns into a career as a commercial pilot after he graduates college.
He wants the students in the program coming behind him to have the same opportunity.
"Any donation to the program would definitely be a great help to other students who may not be able to pay for their own flying lessons," Griffith said.
Griffith said he would like to see Durham Public Schools offer an aviation program, but only to students who are serious about pursuing aviation as a career.
"There's such a big focus on going to college but more attention needs to be paid on careers and what students are going to do after college," Griffith said. "No one seems to know what they want to do after college. That's what I think DPS should be focused on."