Forty students walked across the sunny tarmac into the hangar at Hawkins Field on Wednesday, June 12. In the center of the large matte white warehouse, a small wooden platform with wheels held PHI Air Medical’s school-bus-yellow rescue helicopter.

Pilot J.D. Wells greeted the students and directed them to the aircraft’s interior. When it was his turn, Tyreese Porter climbed in and sat in the stiff pilot’s seat. He noted the tight fit and Well’s helmet above the seat. From the captain’s chair, he could reach all parts of the craft’s control panel, and he ran his hand across the joystick and touched the pedals. 

As Wells explained his background, an enthralled Porter attentively listened; the former military pilot represented everything that Porter had envisioned for his own future.

“He was ex-military, and he got into college and got to be like a medevac pilot for private companies and some public companies,” Porter told the Crirec. “I’ve always wanted to be a helicopter pilot, but I didn’t know which route to take to get there. After talking to him …, it just stuck out to me because it is something I feel like I want to do.”

Porter would not have uncovered the possibility of combining his dreams of military service, helicopter piloting and health care as early in his life as he did had he not attended the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority’s fifth annual JET-A program, “Fueling the Future of Aviation - Get Set to Jet!” The program included students from Jackson Public Schools and other students from Hinds and Madison counties.

“JET-A, which is Jackson Municipal Airport Authority’s Education and Training Academy started five years ago,” JMAA Director of Communications, Marketing and Public Relations LSherie Dean told the Crirec. “It actually started as a brainchild of a former commissioner. The commissioner’s dream was to get the students or the youth within our community more engaged and to get them information about the aviation industry.”

The Jackson Municipal Airport Authority partnered with the Civil Air Patrol, Hinds Community College, the 172nd Airlift Wing, Jackson State University, and other public and private entities to provide a week-long immersion into aviation. Attendees participated in ​​flight simulators, drone training, seminars, aircraft familiarization, aviation planning, aerodynamics exercises and facility tours.

Central Mississippi students listened as aviation professionals taught them about the industry during the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority’s Education and Training Academy that took place from June 10 to June 14, 2024. Photo by Senior Airman Shardae McAfee and 2nd Lt. Jared Bounds

The program is significant for students in the central Mississippi area because many are not aware of the opportunities in aviation. The industry also does not have many minorities or women, a factor that programs like JET-A are working to change.

“The value of having this program in Central Mississippi is because we want all our kids in  Jackson Public Schools (and) in Central Mississippi to be exposed to aviation, aerodynamics, STEM programs, and the updated technology on AI,” Jackson Public Schools Director of the U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps Col. Fredrick Brown said. “We want our kids exposed because they're underprivileged kids in many cases. With just one week of training, these kids are exposed to a new career path.”

The Minority Pilot Advancement Foundation, a nonprofit committed to increasing the number of minority airline pilots through exposure to the aviation industry, estimated that less than 3% of all airline pilots are African American and less than 1% of minority pilots are women. In 2023, U.S. House Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., re-introduced the Minorities in Aviation Education Act, which would create a grant program to improve the preparation and representation of minorities in aviation-related fields.

“Our CEO is one of three Black women CEOs in the country,” Dean said. “Representation matters and those are the things that we’d like to see and open up to all students. There is opportunity here.”

Interior view of an airplane
Students in the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority’s JET-A program visited the 172nd Airlift Wing and learned about military careers in aviation. Students boarded a C-17 and heard from pilots about the plane’s use and operation. Photo courtesy Shanti Guice

Ridgeland High School student Shanti Guice learned about the program at an airshow at JMAA. She met Dean, who encouraged her to apply to the program. She had already taken discovery flights through the Madison Flyers program and she met Lt. Stayce Harris—the first African American woman to command an Air Force operational flying squadron, wing and numbered Air Force—at a gala. 

Guice came to the program hoping to connect with someone to help her make college and career choices. She met Sam Washington of the Civil Air Patrol. Having attended and taught at Delta State University's School of Aviation, Washington offered to meteor Guice, who hopes to attend the DSU program as well.

“This program has motivated me to move forward by inspiring me,” Guice said. “It’s helped me to realize that it's not out of reach. It's closer than you think. It definitely puts it into perspective for you. It humanizes the whole experience to let you know you can do it, too. You really can do it, too.”

The students graduated from the program on Friday, June 14, in a ceremony at the JSU E-Center.

Torsheta Jackson is MFP's education-equity reporter, in collaboration with Report for America. She is passionate about telling the unique and personal stories of the people, places and events in Mississippi. The Shuqualak, Miss., native holds a B.A. in Mass Communication from the University of Southern Mississippi and an M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Mississippi. She has had bylines on Bash Brothers Media, Mississippi Scoreboard and in the Jackson Free Press. Torsheta lives in Richland, Miss., with her husband, Victor, and two of their four children.