Ramone Hemphill Sr. never even considered becoming a pilot.
Growing up, his middle-class family lived in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he had ample opportunity to pursue whatever interested him, trying everything from basketball to the cello.
“I can buy a basketball from Walmart and go find a basketball court on any given street, but that level of access just isn’t the same when it comes to wanting to fly in an airplane,” Ramone says. “I didn’t even think of the whole aviation thing as something to ask about—that’s how far-fetched it was.”
Even more far-fetched, he says, as a Black American.
“It is written in bold writing across the industry. There aren’t a lot of Black pilots—or any positions in the aviation industry for that matter,” he says. “Black children just don’t have as many examples to reach out and touch as their white counterparts.”
In fact, only about 3 percent of aircraft pilots in the U.S. are Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Ramone is one of the few, but he refuses to remain that way.
“This is not an instance where being ‘one of the few’ is something to brag about,” he says. “This stuff is too fun, too great and too rewarding to be ‘among the few.’ I want to change that. I need to change that. I think the world needs to change that.”
That is why in December 2020, Ramone and his wife launched the 99th Squadron, a nonprofit organization seeking to expose young people, particularly minorities, to the vast opportunities in the aviation industry and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields beyond.
A project management MBA student projected to graduate in winter 2022, Ramone earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 2006, where he truly learned the significance of representation.
“We learned the importance of involving different cultures when it comes to creating software,” Ramone says. “And that really applies to everything in this world.”
Since then, he has worked as a systems engineer in avionics, a career that in winter 2019 brought him and his family to the Space Coast, where he now works for Collins Aerospace.
When he first started working in avionics, or “aviation electronics,” the cockpit gadgets he was designing and developing were relatively new to him.
“I wanted to get a deeper operational understanding of it all, not just a textbook understanding,” Ramone says. “I knew the best way to gain that working knowledge was to become a pilot.”
And so, he did. He first completed ground school, where he learned the fundamentals of flying before climbing into the cockpit. He enjoyed it so much, he pursued full flight training, eventually earning his Private Pilot License and an Instrument Rating.
“After that, I just got more and more interested in introducing that whole world to other people, whether it was family members or other folks. And I would get the best kick out of it whenever I would introduce it to kids,” Ramone says.
Always looking for a reason to fly, when Ramone moved to Brevard County, he started asking around for people interested in taking a flight with him. He eventually crossed paths with two STEM nonprofit leaders who asked him, “Have you ever thought about teaching this stuff?”
He hadn’t. But after that exchange, it was all he thought about.
A week later, Ramone had developed a full five-week course curriculum for teaching the aviation basics. In September 2020, just months later, he hosted his first free ground school course for middle and high school students. The course culminated in a flight during which students had the opportunity to take the yoke.
“The overall experience was one that is unforgettable and life-changing for a young adult like myself,” says 16-year-old Navi Tillman, one of the course’s first graduates. “Taking control of a plane for the first time gave me a lot of anxiety. But with the knowledge Mr. Ramone gave me throughout the course, I knew I could take on the challenge.”
The curriculum covers cross-country planning, wing shape and lift, how to read a sectional chart, the function of airspeed indicators, altimeters and other flight instruments, plus much more.
“There is a new set of topics each week, but it just scratches the surface,” Ramone says. “And by the time you’re done with that curriculum, you’ll kind of have that affirmation of whether or not this is something you might want to do.”
It certainly did for Navi, an African American female who, after taking the course, decided that she wants to pursue a career in the aviation industry and eventually become a pilot.
Stories like Navi’s are what propelled Ramone and his wife to create a more permanent structure for the course: the 99th Squadron.
Named after the first squadron of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American military pilots in World War II, the 99th Squadron relies entirely on donations to cover everything from nonprofit operating costs to airplane rental and fuel.
While it is anchored by the youth ground course, which meets twice weekly for five weeks, the 99th Squadron also plans to offer continuing education opportunities, like field trips to museums, air shows, aircraft control towers, maintenance facilities and more.
“The relationship doesn’t stop once class stops. We’ll have these continuing education events and also put students into a pipeline to other STEM organizations. Because it’s not about just aviation; it’s about STEM in general.”
STEM has been a driving force behind both the 99th Squadron and Ramone’s professional career. In fact, it is partly what led him to Florida Tech for his master’s degree.
“Even though I’m in a business program, I was intrigued by Florida Tech’s reputation for STEM,” Ramone says. “It kind of made me dig into the history of this area. Florida Tech is an offspring of the Space Coast, and at the same time, it’s a big influence on it. That was a big deal to me.”
He decided to pursue a project management MBA to further both his career and the mission of the 99th Squadron.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Ramone says. “The ultimate goal is just to change the narrative among minorities as far as what is truly within reach. Not only are they capable, but they are needed.”