Like an eagle, spread your wings and soar to new heights.
Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association president, Bill Shepard, constantly conveys this message to young people while celebrating the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviators in the United States Armed Forces who fought in World War II.
Subjected to discrimination in and out of the Army, the airmen brushed aside the obstacles and trained hard and flew with distinction.
Shepard wants young people to follow that example.
“My message to them always is rise to the challenge, aim high, believe in yourselves, use your brains, always expect to win and live by the principles of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Shepard told Share.
The Woodstock resident was the keynote speaker at The Dream Never Dies Foundation’s (DNDF) 10th annual scholarship awards to celebrate the memory of aspiring commercial pilot, Lloyd Skeen, who passed away in February, 2003. The event took place last Saturday night in Mississauga.
Shepard is a member of the American-based Commemorative Air Force (CAF) that owns the P-51C long-range single-seat Mustang and the Red Tail Project. As part of the CAF “Rise Above” travelling educational exhibit that traverses Canada and the United States, Shepard – on his 48th birthday last year – became one of just two Blacks in North America licensed to fly the World War II-era P51, named “Tuskegee Airmen”.
“It’s important that we showcase and honour these special airmen who came before us,” said Shepard, who crossed the border to Canada with his family from Kansas in 1970. “It’s because of them that I am able to fly today. It’s also critical to keep that history alive because a lot of our young people have lost touch with their heritage and history. They just don’t seem to know what they need to do to succeed in life and many seem to have lost that fighting spirit.
“These airmen had to overcome vast odds and not accept what others thought about them. They dug deep, they persevered and they rose above challenges and not only achieved their dreams, but exceeded expectations. It’s vital people grasp the sacrifices these people made.”
Flying the Red Tail Mustang has provided Shepard with the opportunity to meet close to 150 Tuskegee Airmen, including 90-year-old Roscoe Brown Jr., who shot down an advanced German ME-262 jet fighter and a FW-190 fighter during World War II and Harry Stewart, who flew 43 combat missions and is credited with shooting down three German fighter planes on April 1, 1945. The feat earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross.
The son of a military officer who did three tours in Vietnam and was a maintenance officer for a fighter squadron and a back-seat rear for an F4 before leaving the military to become a sheriff, Shepard started flying at age 15.
“As a young child, I often rode my bicycle to the local airport in Stratford,” said Shepard, who is one of just five Black pilots currently flying the North American Harvard/T-6 advanced trainer aircraft. “There, I would push and wash planes in the hope that I would get one ride at the end of the day.”
Shepard is a long-time supporter of the DNDF that has awarded 40 scholarships worth nearly $30,000 in the last decade.
A graduate of Daytona Beach’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, which is considered the world’s leading aviation and aerospace institution of higher learning, Skeen recognized the financial sacrifices his family made to put him through university and pledged that he would fund a scholarship to help students in financial need once he paid off his massive tuition bills and started flying.
Skeen did not get the opportunity to fulfill that promise.
The Greater Toronto Airport Authority employee died shortly after celebrating his 32nd birthday and it was left to his family and friends to carry through on his promise.
“To be honest, I did not think the foundation would have picked up strength and momentum the way it has,” said his mother, Judy Skeen, who brought her British-born son to Canada when he was seven years old. “This has been a team effort and I know Lloyd would be proud.”
She said his passion for flying was ignited at age four when the family flew to Jamaica to visit his grandparents.
“Lloyd knew he wanted to be a pilot and he worked extremely hard to achieve that dream,” said Skeen.
This year’s scholarship recipients included Western-Technical Commercial School graduate, Allan McLean, who aspires to fly for one of Canada’s leading airlines.
“I have had a fascination for aircrafts since I was in Grade Three and I loved plane-spotting,” said the son of a Trinidadian father and Grenadian mother who came to Canada in 1979. “This scholarship means a lot. In addition to the obvious financial help, it assures me that I made the right decision to get to the point where I am at right now in flight school. This will motivate me to keep going in pursuit of my dream.”
Scholarships were also presented to siblings Tariq and Tshea Dowers. Tshea graduated from Cawthra Park Secondary School and is enrolled in McGill University’s biochemistry program and her first-year university brother is the top gymnast in the province.
Migrating from Trinidad & Tobago at age five, Tariq Dowers has represented Canada at several major international competitions, including the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico and the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The York University student’s main goal is to represent Canada at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.
Other scholarship winners were Ashleigh Rhyno-Mair, who is a lead customer service agent at Airport Terminal Services in Moncton, New Brunswick; Kye Sung Kim, who is a third-year Embry-Riddle student; Page Murray, Hillarey Forde, Celeste Kelly, Alexandra Francis-Gower, Paige Fisher and Joshua and Zachery St. Hillaire.
The awards were presented to students affiliated with the Canadian Aviation Institute at Georgian College of Applied Arts & Technology, the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, the Urban Pilots Network, Crawford Adventist Academy, Mississauga Seventh-day Adventist Church and Peel Children’s Aid Foundation.
Scholarships were also awarded in the names of the late Fitzharold Gillespie and DNDF volunteer and Mississauga Seventh-day Adventist member, Patrina Bailey-Holm, who passed away in October 2010, at age 36.