When he first put pen to paper for his dream to introduce more young people to aviation, Lt. Col. Kenyatta Ruffin knew exactly who he needed to reach: youth in underserved populations across the US. Ruffin had gained so much from his hard work and the opportunities presented to him through his military service that he asked himself, “How can I pay it forward?” Ruffin was introduced to aviation through the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals in 1994, then appointed to the Air Force Academy as a cadet in July 1999. With increasing responsibility through a career as an F-16 fighter pilot, he rose to command the 71st Operations Support Squadron at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma in May 2020.
One of the biggest differences between successful leaders and those who don’t fully achieve their dreams is the role of teammates and support. Ruffin co-founded Legacy Flight Academy in 2012, but it wasn’t until he partnered with Kenneth “KT” Thomas and Aaron Jones that LFA’s success really began. Primarily located at Moton Field in Alabama—the home base of the Tuskegee Airmen, the cadre of African American pilots who excelled as a squadron in World War II—LFA has grown to touch the lives of more than 1,500 youth through, in Ruffin’s words, “pre-discovery flights” and much more. “[We’ve] provided flights to primarily youth from underrepresented groups since 2015,” Jones says. “Banner years were 2017 and 2018 when we flew nearly 500 youth each year, and [our] ultimate goal is to fly 996 annually—the same number of pilots from the ‘Tuskegee Airmen Experiment.’ Our other outreach efforts are just as impressive, annually reaching over 10,000 youth, family and influencers.”
LFA not only exposes young people to aviation—giving them that first flight—but also connects them with folks who represent their demographic. That’s not an easy proposition: It remains the case that fewer than 2 percent of commercial and military pilots are people of color. While LFA targets its mission to Black and other underserved communities, the programs it delivers—and its message—reaches across all genders, ethnicities and backgrounds.
Using a three-pronged approach (“Know, live and grow the legacy”) to connect youth with opportunity, LFA provides awareness and inspiration, features an engaging roster of activities, and delivers ongoing opportunities to help young people understand the scope of the aviation industry and explore careers within it. Their Passion, Attitude, Responsibility program serves as the primary vehicle for LFA’s outreach at career fairs, open houses and other venues, while their Eyes Above the Horizon program is a one-day seminar to introduce students to the Tuskegee Airmen and current Black aviation professionals.
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Most of the LFA leadership consists of minority military aviators, such as Thomas (an Air Force Reserves C-130 navigator, CFI and aspiring airline pilot) and Jones (an F-15E fighter pilot). LFA also thrives on its wide array of volunteers, such as the public relations coordinator Ben Ayivorh, who is a former Air Force Thunderbirds crew chief turned F-15C pilot. Therefore, LFA programs have taken place at Air Force bases and other airports across the country, bringing together military and civilian leaders, pilots, and aviation educators with children from local school districts for a day of presentations on engineering, technology, history and science. Often, the EAH programs leverage local Experimental Aircraft Association chapters to provide Young Eagles flights to interested students. Scholarships are awarded as well to help young people who are ready to fly fulfill those dreams.
According to Thomas, 2020 held challenges but didn’t stop the outreach. “We had to shift a bit because of the pandemic,” Thomas says. But roughly 75 first flights still took place on a more individual basis to adapt to the times. For 2021, LFA plans two or three Legacy Flight Across America seminars, concurrently hosted in five or six locations around the US. “We will give more scholarships—solo, maybe a private certificate,” along with smaller stipends for orientation flights beyond what the one-day programs can achieve.
Through connecting potential pilots with heroes such as 101-year-old Tuskegee Airman Brig. Gen. Charles McGee—who has participated in several events—and leaders such as Ruffin, Thomas and Jones, LFA makes good on providing that first step into the skies for kids who might not otherwise know what was possible.
This story appeared in the 2021 Learn to Fly Special Issue of Flying Magazine