Academy teaches innercity kids to reach for the stars

September 18, 2011
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Patrick Johnson has some lofty goals.

The founder, president and CEO of West Michigan Flight Academy, Johnson envisions a future where today's inner-city kids are filling pivotal roles in the engineering and aerospace industries, fully utilizing the talents and capabilities they honed during their developmental years spent on a noble mission: learning to fly an airplane.

Johnson believes anything is possible. And why wouldn't he? Coming from humble beginnings in a 900-square-foot clapboard house in the Bahamas, where he was the seventh of seven children born to an alcoholic father and a mother who worked two full-time jobs to make ends meet, Johnson has used every talent at his disposal to travel the world, meet presidents and royalty, teach at the college level and perform at the world-famous Dance Theater of Harlem.

He wants the same types of experiences for the students at West Michigan Flight Academy, but only if they and their parents buy into the mission of the program.

"It's about more than learning to fly an airplane," said Johnson.

"You have to believe in yourself and what you can accomplish. If you set high goals but don't have the capacity to believe, it's so much harder to achieve those goals. These kids, when they get here, they can't dream that big."

Even though his family was dirt poor, Johnson still had dreams as a youngster. He would look out the window of his home and gaze at the planes overhead, thinking maybe a future as a test pilot would be interesting. He even asked his mother, Una, about money for flight school in Florida.

Patrick Johnson

Company/Organization:

West Michigan Flight Academy
Title: Founder, President & CEO
Age: 45
Birthplace: Nassau, Bahamas
Residence: Grand Rapids
Family: Wife, Tassia, and children Delia, 9, and Thalia, 6
Business/Community Organizations: Board member of North American Choral Company, member of the Calhoun Area Career Center Aviation Exploration Advisory Committee.
Biggest Career Break: Moving to America.

Eventually, however, reality set in and Johnson needed to find work. He gave up participating on his high school's sports team and instead entered a dance class to "watch the pretty girls." After about five classes, something entirely unexpected happened.

"I realized I wasn't looking at the pretty girls anymore. I realized I really liked dance."

During his junior year of high school, a casino opened in the Bahamas and he was able to land a spot as an entertainer there, finishing his shift at 11:30 p.m. or 2:30 a.m., depending on the night.

"Then a new casino opened at Cable Beach. I got a job there … and sometimes we rehearsed in New York City. I looked at that and said, 'I am coming back here.'"

Johnson danced professionally for several years, in New York and around the world, and still teaches theater classes two days a week at Grand Rapids Community College.

"Just after the dismantling of apartheid, we were (dancing) in Soweto, South Africa, and afterward all these kids — most of them barefoot — followed us home and just sort of hung out with us. We invited them into the apartment and they looked around in awe. You could tell they didn't have much, if anything.

"Anyway, it got me to thinking: What could I do to improve the lives of children who didn't have much? At that point, which was around 1991, I made a decision to start working with kids."

At the time, Johnson was an accomplished professional dancer. He has performed at the critically acclaimed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, New York Conservatory, Broadway Dance Center, Steps on Broadway and the Dance Theatre of Harlem in front of such notables as Nelson Mandela, Vice President Al Gore, Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II and the late Princess Diana.

By 1994, he finally realized his childhood dream and began learning to fly an airplane. A couple years later, Johnson moved to Grand Rapids and then suffered an injury that curtailed his dance career. He was thinking of moving back to the Bahamas but got a call from Grand Rapids Ballet Company, asking him to work with its outreach program for kids.

"I've always seen the path I want to take. I don't know if it's luck or the positions I've been put in, but I've always known where I want to go. I have absolutely no regrets about anything. But I see the state of today's inner-city kids, where they're failing, and it's just disheartening."

Now, it's Johnson's turn to instill that sense of purpose in his students, and he relishes the challenge. But being a little bit older and wiser, he realizes the importance of allies.

"My mother always said, 'Always have something to show for your work.' She instilled that in me, which is why it's important to engage the parents (of students)."

West Michigan Flight Academy currently has about 30 kids enrolled in its flight program. The academy starts taking children as young as 10, either in an after-school program or summer camp, and hopes to have them flying solo by age 16.

WMFA partners with Grand Rapids Air Center in Kent County and Executive Air Transport in Muskegon. The students all are expected to work as part of their training, which includes cleaning the airplanes, washing the floors and "doing anything to earn their keep. There is no standing around."

Professional pilots come in and work with the kids, and the airports' air traffic controllers have been accommodating during visits to the towers.

"In the future, I'd like to see about 100 kids flying, between our locations in Grand Rapids and Muskegon, but that's probably five to eight years down the road," Johnson said.

The after-school programs are free, while the summer camps are $210 per week. Flight school has a monthly fee based on the family's income, and ranges from $20 to $100 per month.

The academy recently landed a $26,000 grant from Ronald McDonald House Charities of Outstate Michigan, which Johnson said will help cover the costs associated with aircraft leases, fuel, pilot training manuals, remote-controlled airplanes and rocket kits, and classroom supplies.

"Basically, it's just me," Johnson said. "So thank God for RMHC. We are a small organization, but we are effective in what we do. This will help tremendously."

He also gets plenty of parental support.

"Seven out of 10 parents didn't believe it until they actually saw kids flying. Now, they're a big part of what we do. The kids didn't believe it until they actually got into the airplane and started logging hours. Now, they're not thinking small anymore. We are teaching them about aerospace, engineering … all that technical stuff.

"We demand a lot from them here. If they want a pilot's license, they have to get straight A's (in school). If they get into the flight school, then they have to improve a letter grade each year. If they already get A's, then they have to be valedictorian.

"Once they get into the flying, it's all business. Mediocrity has no place in what we do."

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