AT COMMUTEAIR, WE HAVE GREAT PEOPLE WITH GREAT STORIES TO SHARE
The month of February is Black History Month, and we would like to take the opportunity to share the incredible stories of just a few of the standout members of our diverse team. This week we’re featuring First Officer, Daniel Croom – an extremely hardworking pilot and recipient of the Red Tails Scholarship award. Read on to hear Daniel’s aviation story:
I grew up playing baseball in a small town called Newton – about 30 minutes outside of Atlanta, GA. As a kid, my dream was to make it to the major leagues. We moved there when I was very young, and it was an uphill battle for me from the very beginning in this all-white town. Even as a small child I wasn’t accepted and always had to prove my worth on and off the field. I was determined to play ball and practiced and practiced and practiced to the point where they had to acknowledge my abilities and I became exceptional. Even in high school I was the only African American kid trying out for the team, and the attitudes of those around me were always the same. I thought to myself, “look – this is your dream, you want to get to the league so let’s go ahead and do it.”
My father is a hard-worker and worked long, physical hours as a contractor, but always made time to practice with me at home. He even built me a little batting cage next to our house and from that point on – I started to get really good. I ended up having an extremely awesome baseball career throughout my high school years: I was four years all-varsity and during my senior year that team (for the first time) won the region – we were the Champions of all regional teams in the state.
I knew the next step was playing at the collegiate level and started to look around to see what kind of offers I could get. I ended up getting a chance to play ball at Tuskegee University – a renowned HBCU that I didn’t know much about at the time but was just psyched to be able to continue my baseball career. When my mom heard about my scholarship offer, she was the first one to tell me about some of the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and that was really my first exposure to aviation…but I still wasn’t done playing ball just yet.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m starting to realize how difficult it’s going to be to make baseball into a lasting career, so I started thinking about other options. I had been so preoccupied with my baseball dreams that I wasn’t sure what else to pursue. I asked my landlord and friend, Miss Trimble (an older lady whose basement I was renting at the time) for some advice, and she pointed me to one of our neighbors who was also African American that was a pilot. At first, I thought, “A pilot? Don’t you have to be in the military to be a pilot? Or start flying when you’re like 16?” I’d never even seen an African American pilot before. So, I went over to his house one Sunday morning and rang the doorbell at 0800. After about fifteen minutes of waiting…I rang it again. Eventually I hear him shamble to the door (he clearly had just woken up) and says,
“Who are you?”
I was a little nervous, so I blurted out, “My name’s Daniel and I live next door at Miss Trimble’s…and I want to fly.”
He looked me up and down. “You want to fly? Do you have any family in aviation?”
“Do you know anything about aviation or becoming a pilot?”
He paused for a second. “Tell you what – meet me at the Tuskegee Airfield this afternoon around two o’clock and I’ll take you up.”
I was shocked. One day I knew nothing about flying, and the next I’m up in a 182 and this experienced pilot is doing turns and deep dives trying to make me sick – and I’m just in back there smiling man! I’m having the time of my life! After we landed, he looks at me and says, “Hey you might be able to do this,” and I knew then that my life had changed. I said “I want to do this. This is my thing. I want to do this for the rest of my life.” And he said, “OK. Let’s talk about how we can get this done.”
It soon became clear that it was going to be financially stressful to achieve my new dream. Becoming a commercial pilot costs anywhere from sixty to eighty thousand dollars.
Without a wealthy family or connections to a flight school, my options were limited. Fortunately, my neighbor was aware of the Red Tails Scholarship Foundation and knew General Sparrow (of the 187th, Montgomery) who was part of the leadership. He put a good word in for me while I was studying and passing the aptitude tests required to apply. There was also an interview.
When I went to the interview, I was surrounded by applicants that were aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers – top notch Tuskegee graduates with 4.0 GPA’s. I was a baseball player that didn’t know anything about aerospace! The next day General Sparrow called me and said, “You’re a little rough around the edges but we really like you and want to offer you some help – we want to pay for your half of your private pilot license. About six thousand dollars.”
I was more motivated than ever! While I was studying and flying, I got a job working at ATL airport working on the ramp and servicing customers as a wheelchair pusher. I was hustling my butt off and was using the mentality that I had developed during my baseball career of pushing and working hard to do everything I could to prove myself. I ended up getting my private pilot license in under five months (extremely fast) and my performance impressed the leadership of the Red Tails to such a degree, that they offered to up the ante and pay for everything (instrument, CFI, multi-engine, commercial). I was so happy and felt so blessed that my hard work had paid off and that the Red Tails had recognized my abilities!
Now, being a working commercial airline pilot, I’m proud to say The Red Tails changed my life. They gave me an incredible opportunity, and I’m so glad to be able to go back and teach the next generation of Black aviators and be a part of the continuing history of this historic group. We always compare ourselves to the original Tuskegee Airmen and it drives all of us to be the best that we can be – to uphold their great name and to give back to other African American kids so they can have the same opportunities that we have had.