Erin Slaughter and Zoria Goodley Click2Houston
Texas Southern University’s aviation program boldly soars to new heights
February 28, 2024
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  • Her bright smile and gentle demeanor might lead some to believe she is too soft for the rough winds of the skies. However, she stands tall, unshaken, with her chestnut-colored skin shining brightly in the sun, describing the profound emotions she experiences when up in the air.

    “Honestly, it’s like falling in love with aviation all over again. Being in the cockpit is the best office ever, and I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Jeuel Calhoun said with a smile.

    Her love for the skies stems from a second-grade trip to LaGuardia Airport, and she is now preparing to soar among them, undeterred by those who may perceive her as unqualified due to her race or gender.

    Despite being unequivocally aware of the lack of racial diversity in aviation—where only 3.6% are Black, as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and with the percentage for women even smaller, Calhoun remains resolute.

    Tania Tucker echoed Calhoun’s sentiments; she said not only is she ready for the job but that flying is not just a skill she possesses but an innate calling.

    Both young women are aware that they are in a field dominated by men and Tucker uses that as motivation; refusing to be weighed down by the statistics, eager to reshape the narrative and demand a seat at the table in this traditionally male-dominated arena.

    “This is not a field for women; it started off as a field for men and a lot of people seem to think women can’t do what men can do, and we are proving them wrong,” Tucker said.

    Calhoun and Tucker are student pilots in the Texas Southern University Aviation program – a program that, in recent years, has soared to new heights.

    The program stands as the sole ABBI-accredited flight school in Texas, earning its place among only 43 aviation programs worldwide with this accreditation.

    Last December, the Houston City Council unanimously approved Houston Airports to allocate $5.5 million from its Airport Improvement Fund to build the Texas Southern University Flight Academy at Ellington Airport.

    New deals with partners, including United, are underway this year, and the aviation program anticipates announcing ”the biggest news yet” soon.

    Under the leadership of Dr. Terrence Fontaine, the executive director, the program is sending a powerful message to the aviation world and anyone who believes that the color of their skin or their school affiliation is an automatic disqualifier for anything.

    Fontaine continues to strengthen the aviation program, achieving a retention rate of 98.3%, and he acknowledges the university and its sponsors for their ongoing support.

    Their support enables the purchase of new planes, the hiring of instructors, and the implementation of cost-reduction measures for both the program and students.

    As Fontaine spoke about his lifelong passion for aviation, a passion that guides his vision for the program, his demeanor transitioned from an initially light-hearted manner to a more serious one.

    His hands, already clasped together, tighten even more as he sits with purpose, beginning to discuss his vision for the direction he will lead TSU’s aviation program.

    “My ambition is to make Texas Southern’s aviation program one of the largest and the most heralded programs in the nation. I’m talking about the number one aviation program is Purdue University; you have Embry-Riddle University, the University of North Dakota, and others that are prominent, but to me, there’s no reason why Texas Southern can’t be in that same conversation,” he said.

    While recognizing the work that still needs to be done, and reflecting on the initial challenges, Fontaine said despite them, he stood steadfast in reaching his goals for the program.

    “I never doubted my ability or the school’s intention to grow the program; it was just hard,” he said, pointing out ‘reminders’ in his office that he keeps so he’ll never forget the program’s humble beginnings.

    “When I got here, we had no airplanes, we didn’t own any airplanes. The previous management left with no instructors, so we had no flight instructors, no airplanes, no anything. We bought the first plane for $68,000, and that was the sign to me the university was going to support us. Next thing you know we won a contest and got a brand-new airplane, and then we bought another one for $90,000, and we just keep watching the enrollment go up,” he continued.

    The TSU aviation program now boasts a fleet of nine planes. The latest addition, ‘N927TS,’ pays homage to the university’s founding year in 1927.

    One aspiring pilot in the program, Bryce Robertson, said that his passion for airplanes, and his love of seeing them everywhere, is the driving force behind his choice of an aviation career.

    A focused young man, with black dreadlocks pulled back from his face; exuded purpose and confidence as he deplaned after a practice flight, already embodying the demeanor of a seasoned pilot.

    “If there is anything I can do, regardless of the payment, flying is top on my list. I have a great time when I step in the plane, whether I am the person flying or a passenger,” he said.

    Alongside his love for aviation, Robertson shared that he also holds his bonus family at TSU close to his heart.

    “I transferred from U of H, so I went from a big school to a small school, and I love the family-oriented teachers that I have here,” said Robertson.

    One of Robertson’s flight instructors, Morgan Esguerra, spoke just as highly of him and his fellow students, emphasizing that his primary responsibility is to ensure their safety.

    “Your responsibilities as an instructor skyrocket, you have people’s lives at stake, so you have to teach them really good, you want to be able to teach them the right thing, so everything I learned, I have to pass it on to students and be a mentor for them because one day they’ll be in our position,” he said.

    As his students stepped on and off the plane, Esguerra, visibly proud, watched with a parental stance and a subtle smile, conveying his support not just in the skies but also on the ground.

    In a humble yet enthusiastic tone, Esguerra said that his deep belief in the program inspired him to alter the course of his life and become a part of it.

    “I made a big decision to leave the military and give this school a chance and I’m glad I did. I wouldn’t be in this position, if I didn’t. I’m thankful for Terrence Fontaine for getting the program up and running; I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for him,” Esguerra said.

    The TSU aviation program is creating a historic pathway that has never been traveled before, blazing a trail that will leave a lasting legacy.

    The program is sending the message that the sky is not the limit; it’s the beginning of a limitless journey for those who dare to soar.