Young aviators soar to success with Tuskegee Next

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A small group of teens are soaring to success in the western suburbs as part of an aviation education program called Tuskegee Next. (WLS)

A small group of potentially at-risk teenagers are soaring to success in the western suburbs as part of an aviation education program called Tuskegee Next.

Tuesday was a big day for Andre Sanders. At just 21, he's earning his wings.

"It's a great milestone in, I would say, 'Andre Aviation History,'" Sanders said.

Sanders is one of nine Chicago area students in the Tuskegee Next Academy, a summer program housed at the Illinois Aviation Academy in DuPage County.

"What they've learned at this program here is that they can do it," said Stephen Davis, founder of Tuskegee Next.

It's the idea of Stephen Davis, chair of the DuPage County Airport, to give potentially at-risk teens a positive outlet. Most of the students here are from Chicago's inner city.

"I would see how my parents struggled, how my friend's parents struggled, how all these people in this neighborhood struggled. And I was like, I don't really want this," said Diego Perez, a Tuskegee Next cadet.

The program is funded through donations and is named after the first generation of the Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. Now in his 90s, Milton Williams flew close to 40 missions during the war and says he's proud to help guide the next generation of African American aviators.

"The important part of being a Tuskegee Airman was, we were the first black aviators to represent this country," Williams said.

In its second year, the eight-week program is no joke. Monday through Friday, cadets spend a full day on flight and ground training along with oral exams.

Only 2 percent of the country's licensed pilots are black and even fewer are Latino and female. Julissa Torres, 17, hopes to change that.

"There's not a lot of Latina women who are pilots, like less than 5 percent, so why not change it," she said.

Nikko Swain is one of the program's success stories. The student at IIT majoring in aeronautical engineering who hopes to one day design planes earned his private pilot's license last year and respects the legacy he's pledged to continue.

Tuskegee Next is the first program of its kind in the nation. By 2025, it aims to turn out 100 successful pilots, including Andre Sanders making his first solo flight - and there is success as these young aviators soar like those before them.
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