CHESTERFIELD, Missouri — Derreck Beal Jr. sat in the front seat of his mom’s Nissan on a recent Friday morning traveling down Highway 40 when he got the news.
Derreck, who goes by D.J., is a typical 17-year-old: Obsessed with basketball. Good student. Usually calm and collected. But, that morning in the car, he got a text that lit up his nerves.
“You’re taking the test today,” the message read.
It was from his flight instructor.
D.J. is one of 11 students over the last two years chosen for the Red Tail Cadet Program, a six-week residential flight school that teaches students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District to fly, while many of their peers are still trying to parallel park.
The program, which launched last year, offers one of the rarest opportunities for young people in the St. Louis area. It’s an all-expense paid chance to learn to fly. But that’s just the start. Its founders also hope the work will lift up cadets’ futures, diversify the aviation industry and use the young pilots to inspire others.
“I see now it’s is a huge opportunity,” said Beal. “It really changed everything for me.”
Red Tails is not a typical summer camp: Cadets, some whom have never even been in a plane before, live Sunday through Thursday at a hotel near the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Chesterfield. They keep to a tight schedule of flights and ground school. And they are assigned their own one-on-one flight instructor — and their own Cessna 172 four-seater.
Students don’t get their pilot’s license in a single summer, but the program puts them miles ahead of most should they, like D.J., want to pursue it.
Only six of Ferguson-Florissant’s top students are chosen each year. But leaders hope the program’s reach extends beyond the few chosen to fly.
The Rev. Anthony Meyers, a pastor with the multi-campus St. Louis area church The Crossing, thought up the program after speaking with pilots on a 2019 mission trip to Rwanda and Tanzania. The young African airmen told him learning to fly changed the trajectory of their lives.
“I thought maybe it could do the same for kids in Ferguson,” said Meyers, who’s had a longstanding relationship with school leadership of the district where students are 30% less likely to seek post-secondary education or vocational training than the average Missouri high schooler.
The Crossing and a host of private donors, including Boeing, cover the annual costs of about $60,000 to $80,000 for the cadets.
“The hook is flying a plane,” Meyers said. “But it’s really showing what is possible. We put their posters up in the schools because I want that third grader to look up at them and say: ‘You went to my same school as me and you’re a pilot. Can I do that too?’”
Meyers named it the Red Tail Cadet Program, in honor of the World War II-era Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-Black military aviation unit in U.S. history, known for red tails on their planes.
Today, disparities in aviation remain stark: As of last year, 93% of commercial and airline pilots were white and nearly 95% were men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“We want to open up aviation to people that might only have thought of it as a distant dream,” Meyers said.
D.J. remembers the test flight that likely changed his future for good.
It was the first year of the program, last year, and D.J., a varsity basketball player at STEAM Academy at McCluer South-Berkeley High, was a finalist. He met the 3.2 GPA minimum, had high praise from teachers, submitted an essay and interviewed with a panel of six church, business and aviation executives.
“I wasn’t sure about it at first,” he said recently thinking back. “It’s a big commitment for the summer.”
His mother, Johnell Goss, works in special education for the Ferguson-Florissant School District. His father, Derreck Beal Sr., is a forklift driver.
D.J. always loved planes, pulling up videos of jets online as a kid, but never considered it a viable career, not knowing any pilots in his life.
Then he got to fly. He co-piloted that first flight in the spring of 2021, taking control of the plane over the St. Louis Gateway Arch.
“Your heart is racing and you’re thinking faster because you’ve never seen anything like that before,” he said “I remember thinking: I need to do that again.”
D.J., tapping into the determination he usually channels into athletics, was a standout in the first Red Tails class, said John Tipton, the owner of Elite Aviation who helped form and run the program along with his wife, Donna Tipton.
“He’s a quiet leader,” Tipton said. “He’s got that drive and determination to be a pilot.”
D.J., then a junior, ended the 2021 program with 23 flight hours, short of the 40-hour minimum required to get the pilot’s license that allows pilots to travel solo and take passengers. An additional license is needed to fly commercially.
That first summer, D.J. decided flying was his future. He planned to go to college for aviation, but didn’t want to wait to keep training.
“I kept asking: ‘When will I be able to come fly again and finish up?’” D.J. said. He learned the higher-level training would be more expensive. His family began researching if they could afford it themselves.
Then a private donor, Brandon Mann, CEO of private investment firm Kingdom Capital, offered D.J. a scholarship to return to the Red Tail’s second class of cadets. He would be the program’s first “cadet captain.”
“It’s time to go to work,” D.J. said the day before beginning this year’s program. “I’m ready.”
It was 103 degrees on June 13, as D.J. and the 2022 cadets walked out along the runway outside Elite Aviation for their first flight that summer.
D.J. was already able to go through the extensive pre-flight checklist without much help, checking every light, control switch and piece of gear on the aircraft for safety.
But there were new cadets too: Anyah Brown, an 11th grader at McCluer High School, had never even been in an airplane before her own test flight, but aims now to become a military flight surgeon. Jalen Reynolds, a senior at McCluer High, is a three sport athlete, inspired by D.J. to enter the program. Micah Riggs, a senior at McCluer North, didn’t yet have her driver’s license, but was ready to fly a plane.
Then there was McCluer junior Tyrese Walker, who now dreams of becoming a flight instructor and that morning was dressed in socks decorated with Sour Patch Kids candy as he got practical advice on flying from his instructor Connor Stuart just before the first flight.
“You gotta watch out for the Cessna diamond,” Stuart said pointing to his forehead. “That’s when you smack your head on the wing.”
Within a few minutes, Walker and Stuart were in the cockpit preparing for takeoff. Stuart calmly talked the nervous teen through the controls.
“You’re going to do takeoff. I’m not going to do it for you,” he said. “The best part of flying is the view, I promise.”
Walker, with some bumps and corrections along the way, lifted the plane off the runway and was soon above the Chesterfield Valley with a sea of trees below.
“Flying an airplane is like riding a horse,” Stuart told him. “You don’t have to constantly guide it.”
Just before landing, Walker turned to his instructor and asked: “So how did you start doing this as a job?”
Soon the student pilots fell into a routine, spending nights studying and goofing off in the hotel, with D.J. often staying up the latest to study for his license tests.
The cadets fly most mornings before spending the afternoon in ground school studying the terms, sign meanings, weather patterns and emergency procedures needed to fly.
And they used their planes to actually go places: They flew themselves to Southeast Missouri State University’s aviation program in Poplar Bluff for a tour. D.J. made a long-distance trip, without an instructor, all the way to Jefferson City.
The cadets also met executives at Boeing. They had dinner with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron. They toured St. Louis Lambert International Airport. They talked about resume writing, college applications, financial management and careers in aviation. They went out for a lot of ice cream.
One cadet, Micah, ended the last day of the program in tears in her mom’s car. She was disappointed the program was over, but also filled with new questions about her future.
Micah had been in robotics club, travel volleyball and a “Girl Boss” club for future entrepreneurs at McCluer North. But in the car with her mom that day, she ended up asking about college programs.
“I thought, ‘Where did this come from?’” said mother Sharis Lewis, an human resources professional. “This whichever-way-the-wind-blows child is now wanting to have serious talks about her future. So any concerns that I had about her being able to take life seriously started to fade.”
Micah is now considering studying aviation in college, weighing it against her previous plans to play college volleyball.
“It’s made me ask: What’s really going to be best for me?” Micah said. “Do I pay to travel for volleyball or get paid to travel and build a career?”
Jalen, famous in the cadet program this summer for asking the most questions, said he was also considering life as a pilot, but keeping his options open.
The son of a plumber and teacher’s clerk for the Hazelwood School District, Jalen balanced the cadet program with football practice along with jobs cutting grass and busing at a local bar this summer.
“I used to think just about playing sports in college,” he said in a recent interview. “Now I think there’s so many ways you can expand your career.”
These days, Jalen finds himself looking up at the sky in the middle of football practice as planes pass overhead.
“I never did that before,” he said. “I just think about what it would be like to fly those.”
D.J. thought he needed another week to study. His instructor didn’t agree.
In August, he was surprised with the first of three tests he needs to get his license.
All summer he had his own separate ground school from the rest of the cadets. He studied some 1,000 questions he’d need to know for the exam, on everything from air traffic control communications to visibility, mapping and fuel needs. He already had more than 60 flight hours, including solo flights and long distance trips.
But the written test would be the first big step to becoming official. He’d then need to pass an oral exam and a flight test with Federal Aviation Administration examiners to get licensed.
His mother, who had watched her son push himself, held his hands and prayed in the car before he went into Elite Aviation to take the test.
“You got this,” she told him.
D.J. took the full 2.5 hours allotted.
Then Goss got the call: D.J. passed.
“I screamed so much my head hurt,” Goss said. She reserved more than 20 seats for D.J.’s family members at the program’s year end-event. “I’m in awe of him.”
D.J. said his goal is to pass his next two tests before he turns 18. An average of less than 1,000 17-year-olds, the youngest age eligible, earned the license nationwide each year since 2019.
Either way, D.J. said his future is in the air. He’s considering attending Southeast Missouri State University’s aviation program after he finishes high school in 2023.
“I had better do it,” D.J. joked on the last day of the cadet program this summer. “I’ve promised too many people plane rides not to.”