Photo Credit: Courtesy of Ramone Hemphill
NC A&T Alum Ramone Hemphill Is Building The Next Generation Of Pilots
Former President Barack Obama once said, “A change is brought about because ordinary people do extraordinary things.” For Charlotte native turned Florida resident Ramone Hemphill, that change is happening through his STEM-based aviation non-profit, The 99th Squadron.
Hemphill took an interest in aviation while attending Harding University High School in Charlotte, NC. There, he joined the explorers club which took students on a tour of the Air Traffic Control Center of Charlotte’s airport.
“Being in that control tower sparked my initial interest for the industry,” Hemphill told Travel Noire.
That interest grew as he went on to attend North Carolina A&T State University for Computer Science. While in undergrad, Hemphill joined the school’s Air Force ROTC program and learned even more about the industry as a whole.
“I did not commission after college, and instead took a job as a Systems Engineer in Avionics with Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.”
He soon found that he needed to expand his knowledge base to take his career to the next level. Voluntarily, and with full funding from his company, he decided to enroll in ground school. Once the course was completed, he was given the opportunity to go up on a free flight. This was the gamechanger.
“I really enjoyed seeing a plane in that way,” he said. “I had flown commercial before, but it’s a different perspective when you are in a smaller plane. It’s freeing.”
Just a few years after that flight, Hemphill made the decision to obtain his private pilot’s license. In 2012, he officially became a private pilot, which allowed him to operate noncommercial aircraft for leisure.
Building up the next generation of Black and minority pilots
In late 2019, Hemphill and his family relocated to Central Florida to chase the warm weather. While his primary flying network was back in Iowa, he began building a new network in Florida.
“I was initially just looking for people who were interested in going up on flights, mostly starting with co-workers. I wanted to introduce more people to this world.”
As he built those connections, he was introduced to Joseph McNeil of the South Brevard County Task Force and Roger Hickman of Rising Star Leadership Development, LLC. The two men, both running STEM-based initiatives, pitched the idea to Hemphill to teach the fundamentals of aviation to local youth.
“It was a no-brainer because I was able to do something I love while also giving back to minority students,” he said.
Hemphill’s program welcomed its first cohort in Fall 2019. 6 middle and high school students from across Palm Bay, Florida embarked on the 5-week course which included personalized hands-on as well as classroom training.
But, it wasn’t until after the inaugural class’ graduation that Hemphill decided on an actual name.
“After that first graduation, my wife and I began thinking of ways to expand the program. We decided that each cohort would be given its own nickname and the overall program would be named The 99th Squadron, in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen’s first squadron under the 332d Fighter Group.”
What makes this even more significant is that Hemphill sought the blessings of the members of the Tuskegee Airmen Incorporated. In doing so, he was introduced to the daughter of Col. George S. “Spanky” Roberts— who later became commanding officer of the 99th Fighter Squadron of the Tuskegee Airman.
“It was all God,” Hemphill said. “Not only did I get the blessing of the organization and his daughter, but I also found that Col. Roberts was an Omega man and Freemason like myself.”
As of now, the program is free to middle and high school students across Brevard County. Hemphill only takes groups of up to 10, so that he can provide individualized attention to the attendees, but he intends on providing more courses in the future. After graduation, he allows students to continue their education through field trips and other hands-on opportunities. The next cohort will begin Fall 2021.
“The program’s main focus is the fundamentals needed to become a pilot, but the great thing about this industry is that the learning can be applied to other industries, including engineering.”
For Hemphill, while he is proud to be among the ranks of other Black pilots, he still finds it disappointing that there aren’t more out there.
“I really want more Black men and women to get involved,” Hemphill stated. “That’s why it’s important to have organizations like the 99th Squadron, to help drive exposure and representation. I really want and need for this to change. Flying is such a freeing experience and I want more of us to feel this.”
To learn more about Hemphill’s non-profit or to enroll your middle or high schooler, visit: www.the99th.org.
Related: Meet Barrington Irving: First Black Pilot To Fly Around The World Solo