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Alabama teen fulfills dream of flight with mentorship

March 4, 2018

MILLBROOK, Ala. (AP) — Their ages are wildly different, as are their current roles in life, with one as a mentor and teacher with the other a teenage student.

But one of their earliest memories has an eerie similarity — and it shapes their relationship today and one of Rich Peace’s main goals.

Peace and Johnny Montgomery, both reaching back to their pre-kindergarten days when Santa’s lap was a comfort zone and chocolate-chip cookies were a meal’s main course, had the same goal.

They wanted to grow up to be a pilot.

“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery, a 17-year-old senior at Stanhope Elmore, has made strides toward that goal over the last year, thanks to people like Peace, a 43-year-old fighter pilot with the Alabama Air National Guard.

Peace sees a small piece of himself in Montgomery, who is just one of the examples of why he and a fellow Alabama Air National Guard pilot helped start a scholarship program.

The Red Tail Scholarship Foundation helps minority high school and college students with aviation aspirations.

Peace and Will Sparrow are co-chairmen of the foundation, which gave out five scholarships last year, one of which went to Montgomery.

Five more will soon be awarded. Interviews for 11 applicants are scheduled for Sunday in Tuskegee, the home of the Tuskegee Airmen, who were known as the “Red Tails.”

“I was working for Delta Airlines as an engineer in the early 2000s, and there were very few black pilots — very, very few — in my time there,” said Peace, who was inspired to enlist in the Air Force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and realized his dream to become a pilot.

Years later, a flight-attendant friend with AirTran said, “I think I could do this pilot stuff,” Peace said. He started trying to help and realized the expense involved and how few minorities do it.

He learned that only 2 percent of pilots are black, despite the population being 13 percent African-American.

Why such a difference?

“I talked to some other pilots, and most of them had a lot of exposure to aviation when they were young,” Peace said. “In the African-American community, I think we lacked that experience.”

He and Sparrow — the vice/air commander of the 187th Fighter Wing located at Dannelly Field — “along with a lot of other special people,” Peace said, set to create the foundation.

Torius Moore, a student at Tuskegee majoring in aerospace science engineering and physics, was the first recipient. Montgomery was the second.

“It was a complex undertaking,” Peace said of the paperwork required for nonprofit status and to meet all other requirements.

“For a dumb pilot like me, it was a lot, but (the city of) Montgomery rallied around us, and we found a lot of board members with a lot of skills.”

The scholarship helps cover the expenses for a pilot hopeful to gain his or her pilot’s license. It normally costs about $4,000, Peace said, to take someone from “off the street to their pilot’s license.”

Johnny Montgomery started his training on a scholarship from the Daedalians, an organization of retired pilots, that got him through training to his first solo flight.

The Red Tail scholarship picked up from there.

With a few months left before his high school graduation, Montgomery is up to 41.3 flight hours and 10.8 solo hours, though he said those numbers don’t reflect everything the scholarship has done.

He’s been exposed to Sparrow and Peace, who are both pilots in their full-time jobs. Sparrow flies for FedEx, while Peace is with Delta Airlines, where he used to be an engineer.

He’s become good friends with fledgling pilots such as Moore and Dorian Sankey, another scholarship recipient.

Sankey is an Airman 1st Class in the Air Force stationed with the 187th. He’s a 26-year-old from Red Level with a psychology degree from Auburn who is an avionics specialist.

“If you throw in that I’m the cream of the crop, that would be nice,” he joked.

But Sankey realized he had a dream of becoming a pilot soon after he started working on the F-16s. He told his commander, who introduced him to Sparrow.

“He told me to look up the scholarship,” Sankey said, though Sparrow didn’t reveal his role in it.

Sankey wrote a statement about wanting to be a pilot, collected personal recommendations and went to the interview. He, obviously, won a scholarship.

While still working on the F-16, he’s been going through on-the-ground training twice a week. Sankey jokingly mentions “my instructor” and playfully glares at Peace, who smiles.

Monday marks a big day for Sankey.

It’s scheduled to be his first time to fly.

“I’m not nervous at all. I’m excited,” Sankey said. “This has all been a blessing, definitely a blessing.”

Peace, who has served combat missions in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said he feels blessed seeing their enthusiasm grow for the aviation industry.

It’s something he’s been near all his life, after growing up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, just down the road from the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Peace turned down a football scholarship offer from Air Force because he had looked at the stats — previous players faced steep odds to land a spot in a pilot program.

Instead, he went to Wyoming where he majored in mechanical engineering and caught passes for the Cowboys. The receiver had 72 career receptions for 972 yards and six touchdowns, plus returned kickoffs.

Peace also stood out as far as leadership. He was the inaugural president of Wyoming’s student-athlete advisory committee, which led to some prominence after a contested end to his senior season.

In 1996, the Cowboys led the nation with 359.2 passing yards per game and won the Western Athletic Conference’s inaugural Pacific Division championship.

No. 20 Wyoming lost 28-25 in overtime to No. 6 BYU in the inaugural WAC title game. It drew a 7.3 overnight television rating, making it the most-watched game of Dec. 7, 1996, outdistancing even Florida’s 45-30 win over Alabama for the SEC crown.

(Not long ago, a fellow Delta pilot shared with Peace that he was a BYU fan. He told Peace that he was at that championship game and that it was on YouTube. Peace quickly found his final college reception.)

The Cowboys fell to 10-2 with the loss and dropped to No. 22 in the Associated Press rankings/No. 23 in the USA Today-CNN poll.

And began their offseason.

Three unranked 6-5 teams — California to the Aloha and Stanford vs. Michigan State in the Sun — went bowling. Wyoming, No. 22 in the post-bowl AP rankings, did not.

No team since, other than those serving NCAA punishment, has been ranked in the final poll and not played in a bowl game.

This year, when undefeated Central Florida did not make the since-created playoffs, Peace’s emotions and memories stirred afresh.

“Central Florida going undefeated brought me right back to my college days,” Peace said. “Here we are 20 years later and we’re still talking about the same issues.”

In May 1997, Peace was in suit and tie in a much-different environment.

He testified before a U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee examining the then-bowl alliance.

Next to him sat then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer. Before Peace’s turn, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spoke. Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Mobile) sat on the committee.

Video, Peace only recently learned, remains available at c-span.org.

His fellow pilots and staff with the 187th and the Red Tail scholarship recipients have found it great entertainment.

“I was a child,” Peace said. “I still had hair.”

Such camaraderie has become a staple of the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation, Johnny Montgomery said.

Montgomery said Peace, Sparrow and the recipients all regularly speak. They also have a group text chat — and Peace has been known to contribute from wherever Delta sends him, such as Paris or Santiago, Chile.

Together, they’ve visited the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. They went to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival to see the play “Fly,” which was about the Tuskegee Airmen.

Peace beams with pride that Montgomery has been accepted to the Air Force Academy Prep School. Peace’s parents, who still live in Colorado Springs, will be a “host” family for Montgomery.

“A lot of the scholarship kids become instructors in the program,” Peace said. “That knowledge base will pay dividends once (Montgomery) gets to school.”

Montgomery wants to major in aerospace engineering, become a fighter pilot and “do that as long as I can,” he said. After that, he wants to be a commercial pilot and get his instructor’s license.

Moore, Peace said, has set a higher goal. He wants to be an astronaut.

Last Sunday, Peace and Sparrow helped interview the next class of scholarship recipients.

“What it means to me is I need to get busy and do more fundraising,” Peace said. “Ideally, we don’t want to turn anybody away. If we have 11 applicants, we want to be able to give 11 scholarships.

“That’s the goal.”

Montgomery, like Peace, is from a military family. His dad — Johnny Montgomery II — is a master sergeant with the 908th Airlift Wing at Maxwell Air Force Base.

His dad helps load C-130s, but Montgomery III wonders what might have happened if the Red Tail program was available long ago.

“Back when he was my age, he didn’t have the opportunities I have,” Montgomery said. “This scholarship helps young people get out and see what’s out there.

“I’ve had a lot of people come up to me in the halls and ask, ‘How did you get started?’”

Rich Peace, a founder of a scholarship program that honors the Tuskegee Airmen, had a family friend while he was growing up who was a Tuskegee Airman.

Clarence Shivers was a neighbor in Colorado Springs, Colorado, though Peace was unaware of Shivers’ history.

“For the longest, he was just ‘Mr. Shivers’ to me,” Peace said. “He would come over and play cards with my parents, but I didn’t know much about him.”

Once Peace mentioned his interest in aviation around Shivers, he learned much more.

Shivers, who died in 2007 at the age of 83, fought in World War II and Korea. He went on to become an artist — and sculpted the Tuskegee memorial on the Air Force Academy’s campus.

“He was really influential, but I didn’t realize it at the time,” said Peace, who flies F-16s for the Alabama Air National Guard.

“He always told me, ‘If you’re going to fly, make sure there’s an F- in front,’” Peace said. ”’Nothing with a C-. An A- is OK. An A- or F-.”

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