Saltwater Portrait

Phil Jackson: Launching students toward flight

Trying to give kids a leg-up
Phil Jackson is helping young students, especially minorities, set a course for careers in aviation. He attended high school in Sussex County in the 1960s, when Delaware's schools were racially segregated. BY HENRY J. EVANS JR.
January 17, 2013

Phil Jackson isn’t a man who bites his tongue. Ask his opinion about anything, and you’ll most likely get a straight up, probably politically incorrect, painfully brutal – but honest – answer.

Jackson, 63, is something of a Renaissance man. He goes to bed around 2 a.m. and gets up around 5 a.m. He likes staying busy and on only three hours of sleep, he has plenty of hours remaining in a day.

An avid reader, getting another book into his home office is going to be difficult. He’s also learning to speak Russian because he’s met so many Eastern Europeans in the Cape Region.

“I play piano and bass when I want to take a break from things,” he said. Both instruments are in his library containing a couple floor-to-ceiling bookcases, filled to capacity.

A Vietnam War veteran, Jackson was in the Marine Corps’ 4th Reconnaissance Unit. “I served proudly, but I was ignorant. We shouldn’t have been over there,” he said, referring to America’s military presence in Southeast Asia.

In 1967, he graduated from William C. Jason High School in Georgetown. The school building became then-Delaware Technical & Community College’s Sussex County campus.

Jackson’s class was Jason’s last because school desegregation ended its existence as the county’s all-black, separate but equal school.

Black students who would have gone to Jason were integrated into what had been all-white schools in Milton, Georgetown, Lewes and Rehoboth Beach.

Jackson said he was fortunate to graduate and he attributes the fact he did to Otis Handy, a Jason teacher who wouldn’t let him quit school and who helped him graduate by giving him extra class work to complete.

“People like Handy have given me a lot. Handy, in my mind, is one of the finest people there is,” Jackson said, adding he gets a little emotional when he thinks about what others have done for him, especially Handy.

He’s carried his connection to Handy from his days as a struggling student to his present passion – serving as president of the Tuskegee Airmen John H. Porter Chapter, covering Delaware and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

He said in that capacity, his mission is to put as many young, minority students as possible on track for careers in aviation.

Handy was a Tuskegee Airman aircraft mechanic. During World War II, the group comprised students recruited from then-Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala.

The men distinguished themselves as the 99th Pursuit Squadron, nicknamed ‘Red Tails,’ rising above racial prejudice of the Deep South and U.S. military.

Jackson is working with local schools to find students to mentor.

“We’re in a building phase of continuing the legacy of black pilots. The reason there aren’t more black pilots is that we’re not academically preparing them,” Jackson said. Only 1.8 percent of pilots who hold airline transportation certificates are black.

Certificate holders are the highest-rated pilots, one step above a commercial pilot rating.

Tuskegee Airmen chapters nationwide are encouraging students to enroll in Delaware State University’s Aviation Program.

Aviation degree-seekers can earn licenses to become professional pilots, air traffic controllers or airport managers.

Jackson is also a member of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, and he wears a golden-yellow polo shirt bearing the group’s emblem. Full membership in the organization is extended to anyone who believes in and supports educational opportunities in aviation/aerospace to develop and sustain mentoring young students.

Too few black parents, he said, take their children’s education seriously, adding he’s observed this over three generations.

“It’s time to step up and take care of your kids.

We’re losing 30 to 40 percent of our young black males because for them, school is a pipeline to prison.”  One reason for this, he said, is black boys see few role model teachers – men, especially black men – in the classroom.

He said integration is defined as bringing people of different races together and treating all equally, but that hasn’t happened, and he thinks more black kids did better in school during Jason’s pre-integration days.

“I’m not blaming anybody. Everybody has been a victim of racism, ageism or sexism. But desegregation is a myth,” he said.

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