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Woman Pilot Follows In Tuskegee Airmen Footsteps

Chrystal Cole’s uncle recently made a church announcement, in their hometown of Hernando, Miss., that his niece might be a “Jeopardy!” question. He told the congregation that Cole would be the correct answer in identifying the first Tuskegee Airwoman.

Not quite. She would be the second woman.

Cole, 23, is the second graduate and first woman to complete an aviation program that partners Tuskegee University and Kansas State University at Salina. After graduating from Tuskegee in May with a degree in aerospace engineering, Cole received an associate’s in professional piloting from K-State in December.

Tuskegee no longer has a formal flight program, but the partnership between the two schools is in the spirit of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, black fighter pilots who flew combat during World War II.

Tuskegee Airman Col. George Boyd presented Cole with her diploma in December. On several occasions, Cole met with some of the airmen and used them as a support system.

 “I told them what I wanted to do. They told me, if this is what you want to do, go for it and don’t let anyone stand in your way,” Cole said. “The Tuskegee Airmen paved the road for us. We’re supposed to be there to pick up the path.”

The joint venture with the Tuskegee, Ala. campus and K-State started in 2001 with the intent to spur diversity in the aviation industry. Only two students have graduated and K-State officials say the program is academically rigorous.

After her freshman year, Cole spent each summer at K-State, toiling in the hot sun with two to three flying lessons daily.

Her goal is to be a commercial pilot by age 28, and while working as a design engineer at Cessna Aircraft Co. in Wichita, Kan., Cole is a flight instructor. She is increasing her flight hours, which is required to fly bigger aircrafts. When she trained in the summer, the rigorous 15-hour days included a semester’s worth of class work and exams.

Cole remembers the first time she took command of a plane on a clear day in May 2003. She was nervous – at first.

“When I got to do my solos, it was complete peace. I was actually living my dream,” said Cole, who flies two and six-seat aircrafts. Soon, she discovered that flying was easier than driving – you can actually take your hands off the wheel, Cole said.

Aviation first interested Cole in sixth grade when her teacher gave an Amelia Earhart assignment. Entranced by the most famous female aviator, Cole found a career goal.

“Once she made one record, she wanted to beat the next and the next. She didn’t just settle for anything,” she said of Earhart.

In college, Cole said she learned that out of 60,000 pilots in the U.S., less than 1,000 are Black. In her journey to learn aviation, she also learned something else:

“The plane is just an extension of you.”

–Natalie Y. Moore

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