CBMA Spotlights First Officer Robert Holmes: "Helping Youth of Color to Soar and Succeed”

When it comes to defining Black Male Achievement, one could essentially say it means ensuring that Black men and boys have equitable access and opportunity to reach their greatest heights. For First Officer Robert Holmes, this is a mission taken on quite literally.

As director of the Chicago Aviation Career Education (ACE) Academy, which is an initiative of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), Holmes helps promote awareness, interest and hands-on experience in aviation and aerospace careers, particularly among youth of color. In striving to increase diversity within the ranks of pilots, engineers, mechanics and other industry professionals, Holmes and, more broadly, OBAP—which celebrates its 40th year this August—have taken a “cradle-to-career” approach to fostering future generations of fearless fliers.

For our June member spotlight, CBMA got to speak with Holmes about his background, and why diversity as well as mentorship in the aviation and aerospace industry is so important.

How, and at what age, did you become interested in pursuing a career in aviation?

My father used to travel quite a bit and I would always want to ride along to the airport with him because I had a fascination with airplanes. At the age of thirteen I attended an ACE Academy in Nashua, New Hampshire, which was a defining moment for me because until that time, it was something that I kind of thought about but didn’t really explore. The ACE Academy gave me an opportunity to talk to professionals and actually fly an airplane, and I really walked away being more solidified in my dreams. That was one of the first instances of me knowing that I wanted to become a pilot.

After that I attended Southern Illinois University (I grew up in Chicago) where I received my bachelor’s degree in aviation management as well as an associates degree in aviation flight. During that time I met one of my most important mentors, Bill Norwood, who happens to be one of the founders of OBAP and was also the first Black pilot at United Airlines to achieve the rank of Captain. He was very instrumental during my time down there in just learning how to approach my goals of becoming an airline pilot. After graduation, I was hired by Mesa Airlines, which is a small regional airline, where I worked for about five and a half years; then I was hired by Jet Blue where I worked for three and a half years, and most recently Delta Air Lines where I’ve been for just over a year. 

Tell us about the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, as well as ACE Academy. What do they each do?

This is the 40th year that the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals has been around. It was originally called the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, and that started in Chicago by thirty-eight Black pilots -- which represented nearly 50 percent of the minority pilots worldwide at the time -- who just wanted to come together to figure out how to build a pipeline to help others seize these opportunities, and to bridge the gap from interest into actually becoming an airline cockpit.

ACE Academy was started in 1989 by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with colleges and universities, and it was their way of saying “how do we promote an interest in aviation?” They found that it would be an even better idea to get it on a more grassroots level and touch adolescents before college. They reached out to organizations like OBAP and said “how can we do this,” and OBAP really took that and ran with it. Today there are over twenty ACE Academies that are conducted throughout the country every summer; most of them are sponsored and run by members of OBAP, such as myself.

What age range does ACE cater to? What are the requirements and process to become enrolled in the program?

The program is for primarily high school students, anywhere between the ages of 13-18 years old. We really try to broaden their horizons through the Ace Academy, and each is unique in their own tailored program and what they do. We like to see students who have an interest in aviation, but we understand that young people don’t always necessarily know what they’re interested in. The application process is a matter of going online, filling out the personal information, and in addition we usually ask for an essay.

Why is diversity in the aviation and aerospace fields so important?

Initially coming into the industry I read that minorities made up 2 percent of the pilots, out of about 100,000 pilots in the country. I don’t know what those numbers are today, however I do see more diversity coming in to the flying industry. I think diversity is essential to aviation; bringing in different cultures and ideas is just a smart way to do business. We find in the ACE Academies that some of these kids have never seen a Black pilot, or even more than that, have never been to an airport. So it’s about the exposure and opportunity to let kids know that this is possible and we’re here to help you.


How critical a role does mentorship play in creating future generations of aviation professionals?

I was a freshman in college when I attended my first OBAP convention. There was a Junior I went to college with named Arnold Banks who’s now at United Airlines, and he was like “hey, you need to go to this, this is important.” When I went, I was amazed by the sheer number of pilots who looked like me, and their willingness to help guide me and give me information on how to achieve my dreams. I think that’s really where I learned the importance of networking and mentorship. It’s certainly a big reason why I was able to get to where I am today, not only as a director of an ACE Academy but also a pilot for Delta Air Lines.

In terms of OBAP’s mentorship program, members are able to get specifically linked up with young people under Project Aerospace, but what we find a lot of times is that folks really make it a point to come to these conventions and meet people who are where they need to be, and make that personal relationship. At the Chicago ACE Academy in particular, we make a big deal out of building relationships. It sounds cliché to say “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” but we’ve found that to be really true in this industry.

It’s really about opportunity. I look at the opportunities I was given by attending an ACE Academy through attending an OBAP convention from an early age, at 19 years old. If it wasn’t for the people I learned from, I don’t know if I would have gotten to where I am in the same time frame; perhaps it would’ve taken longer or maybe never would’ve happened. Given that, I know how important it is to give back in the same way. At ACE Academy we say “Lift as you climb.” Even though we’re all trying to climb our own ladders, we need to make sure we continue to give back.

Can you talk about your "cradle-to-career" approach to developing youth into aviation professionals? 

We look forward to being able to mentor young people and if they’re coming at a young age, like a Freshman or Sophomore in High school, we try to see if we can get them to come back to an additional ACE Academy. Once they get into their Junior or Senior year we see if they can branch off into a solo flight academy, which is where they get much more hands-on experience. The goal is to get them to fly an aircraft solo. After that we continue to mentor them on a one-on-one basis to see what universities they’re interested in, or perhaps a military career, and that’s when they really launch into making a career out of aviation. This is all specific to the pilot side, but we do like to also broaden their horizons to talk more about engineering, maintenance technology, dispatchers and air traffic controllers. So it is starting to broaden.

In addition, OBAP’s annual convention always has a career fair, and is an opportunity to apply for scholarships. Airlines such as Delta, United or American will offer what’s called “Type-Rating Scholarships,” and essentially they will pay for a scholarship recipient to learn how to fly one of their aircrafts for free. Those are valued at anywhere from $10-$30,000, and the thought is to help accelerate their career paths through that scholarship. I was actually a recipient of the Delta Air Lines 2010 Type-Rating Scholarship.


What inspired you to join CBMA? How do you feel the work you're doing will improve life outcomes and opportunities for Black men and boys?

It goes back to the importance of networking. Getting to know CBMA came from me actually trying to continue developing the ACE Academy in Chicago. I reached out to a gentleman who’s an air traffic controller out in Chicago because we usually take the kids to visit their facility, and he knew of (CBMA Membership Engagement Consultant) Claude Aska. When Claude and I spoke he explained the mission of CBMA and some of the services that are offered, and it seemed like a really good fit and something that I was interested in. We are relatively new in Chicago and are looking for ways to expand, so it’s a great opportunity to expose what we do, and get new people to help us with things that are outside of our normal profession. At the end of the day, getting the word out is so important because I believe that it’s about opportunity more than anything else.

How can CBMA members support OBAP and ACE?

We’d love to have members reach out to young people they know who may have interest in aerospace. If you visit us at OBAP.org and click under the “Project Aerospace” tab you’ll see “Youth Programs” and then “ACE Academies.” There’s over twenty of them throughout the country. The Chicago one will be from July 11-15th this year and one of the unique things about the Chicago academy is that we offer it for free. We didn’t want cost to be prohibitive for some people, we want to be able to offer it to everyone.

The academy is Monday through Friday, and we break it up into two parts: the first half is teaching them Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) through aviation, and the other half is spent visiting various aviation businesses throughout the Chicago-land area, like touring the United Airlines headquarters, Chicago O’Hare Airport, or an air traffic control facility. We usually like to end the program with a day where they actually get to have the hands-on experience of flying a small aircraft.

If you know of people who are interested, please pass along our information. You can also find photos of the Academy from the last few years on Facebook, so you can follow us on there at facebook.com/ChicagoAceAcademy/.