Growing up in Maywood, Ill., a young Tammera Holmes was a smart kid who got into school trouble, leaving her mom wringing her hands over what to do to keep her daughter on a positive path. Seeking to spark her interest in something productive, Holmes’s mom sent her and her brothers to then Meigs Field, on Chicago’s downtown Lakefront, where pilots gave free airplane rides to kids.
“When the pilot asked me if I wanted to take the controls to fly the plane, I said ‘yes,’” Holmes said. “When we turned the plane around facing the city’s skyline on a most beautiful day, I knew then that aviation saved my life.”
“I knew I had the academic ability, but because I was considered a high risk, I needed something that would keep me interested and give me something to strive toward,” she said. “I found it in aviation.”
Though not a pilot herself, the Southern Illinois University graduate is a professional airport planner who considers herself an “aviation enthusiast,” who has logged more than 100 hours of flight time over 20 years. Over four years, she researched and developed an aviation curriculum that led to a contract with After School Matters to provide aviation education in Chicago Public Schools.
In 2016, Chicago’s AeroStar Avion Institute, providing both aviation and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education to minority students, took off. The program provides 90 minority students a year with exposure to aviation education, aerospace technology, and preparation for future careers in aviation at nominal costs. The Tuskegee Airmen also offer free flights to AeroStar participants at the Gary Airport.
“For many kids who have never left the South Side, they can’t conceive of a career in aviation,” Holmes said. Today, AeroStar is garnering growing interest from the aviation industry. One of its major sponsors is Boeing. In fact, Boeing predicts a need for 1.1 million pilots and mechanics over the next 20 years. “And jobs in the aviation industry are well-paying jobs,” observed Holmes.
Success to Holmes is providing “safe landings” for minority students by equipping them with both STEM and life skills to navigate the aviation field without restrictions of race or background. The nonprofit aspires to secure space on Chicago’s South Side to create an Aerospace STEM training facility that will be dedicated to serving K-12 and college students, as well as adult learners.
The Community Programs Accelerator will provide AeroStar with support in the areas of organizational leadership, strategic planning, fundraising and marketing, skills it needs to impact and employ more young women and men of color in aviation in the future, Holmes said.
“We need to get beyond field trips and guest speakers,” she said. “The hope is that local aviation businesses will offer free flights to aviation students, and in the future, internships or apprenticeships.”