April 2014- As I search our aviation family to find aviators who are reshaping the world with their perfectly-executed and brilliant ideas, I occasionally find one person who is doing what most people would say is the impossible. These super-motivators have made it their life’s work to never listen when others say something can’t be done, and they refuse to let seemingly insurmountable hurdles slow them down in their quest to achieve great outcomes against incredibly challenging odds.
The actions of everyone who contributes to a better society are noble, but if you want to see how it’s done—how one person can change and literally even save lives—stop in at Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum (TAM) in Compton, Calif. and spend a few hours with Robin Petgrave, TAM’s founder and executive director.
Petgrave is an 18,000-plus hour ATP helicopter and airplane pilot, Gold Seal Flight Instructor and president and chief pilot of Celebrity Helicopters, and has flown in production roles including stunt flying for the Los Angeles film industry. But where Petgrave really excels is in a classroom surrounded by at-risk youth where he can say he believes in them, and they know he means it.
Standing in front of kids who might be kicked to the curb by others, Petgrave can look a future gangbanger in the eye and cut through the lip and attitude to show that young boy or girl a path forward to a better life.
TAM’s core mission is to bring aviation history to life and empower the dreams of youth to take flight. At the Compton campus—which is called a “living classroom”—there are interactive exhibits that look at racial diversity and the evolution of flight; a nonprofit flight academy; and an after-school program that offers programs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) enrichment as an alternative to drugs, gangs, violence and other self-destructive activities.
After a childhood in the Boston area where he noticed the lives of people around him crumbling from drugs and alcohol, Petgrave made a personal decision to avoid self-destructive behaviors at all costs and become successful. After moving to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career he found himself drawn to flying, and earned his commercial rotorcraft license and certified flight instructor’s certificate.
Fast-forward to about 1991 and imagine standing in a South Central Los Angeles schoolyard watching a Bell 206B JetRanger helicopter coming in for a landing. At the controls is Petgrave, bringing his new Positive Vibrations program right to where it is needed most.
Yes, landing in a schoolyard was bold, and it required plenty of forethought and planning. But since these schools didn’t usually get this kind of help from the private sector, school officials allowed the landings because everyone involved with at-risk kids knew something like this was desperately needed.
Petgrave quickly found out that when you meet these kids on their turf, exiting a shiny and expensive helicopter in a form-fitting flight suit, you grab their attention. And almost before the rotor stopped turning, Petgrave began making an impression on the students and even the teachers, and it was a simple lesson about skin color and possibilities.
“On one school landing,” he explains, “I brought a white student with me and when we got out of the helicopter, all the kids—and most of the teachers—thought my student was the pilot. Their reactions were priceless when I explained that an African-American man was the pilot, flight instructor, owner of the helicopter, and even owner of the company that owned the helicopter. Everyone was blown away to see someone who looked like them doing what I did and in the position that I was in.”
Petgrave’s work landing on elementary school playgrounds for career days soon drew the attention of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. They had the idea of doing more to help youth in one of L.A.’s roughest school districts, and as a pilot with the ultimate respect for this famed group of aviators, Petgrave decided in 1998 to honor the Tuskegee Airmen by building a place in Torrance, Calif. where kids could get introduced to aviation as an alternative to drugs, crime and a life of hopelessness.
In 2001, when Compton’s Mayor Eric Perrodin invited Petgrave to relocate the organization to the Compton/Woodley Airport, the renamed TAM consisted of a small staff of two and a few desks with computers in a 7,000-square-foot hangar.
“I envisioned TAM’s Compton airport location as being an entry point for underrepresented youth,” Petgrave explains. “Our purpose was simple: teach inner city kids about flying, support their academic achievement, and instill in them the importance of their education.
“Although we do so much more now, at our core, this purpose remains the same. We use aviation enrichment as a catalyst to inspire, motivate, change young minds; and while on the ground, we support student academic achievement through our partnerships with area schools, one-on-one tutoring and college preparation.”
TAM is much more to these kids than just an education. “When a youth joins TAM,” he says, “they not only join a family, they become part of a cultivation process designed to empower them to excel in their personal, academic and future professional life. We believe this is how you change a community for the better—by bettering the next generation.
“When all is said and done, we envision a place where all community youth receive the support they need to graduate high school, go to college and become future contributors in the fields of science, aeronautics, technology and to the well-being of society.”
Can you dream big? Really big? Because Robin Petgrave can. He is currently dreaming of a program such as TAM’s that is taught during the school day in Compton’s schools as part of a regular curriculum.
The significance of this cannot be overstated. And with the right support, Petgrave envisions his programs going national, reaching even more school districts and more kids.
To set this in motion, TAM has enlisted major sponsorships from some of the largest aviation and aerospace companies in the business. Names like Boeing, SpaceX, UPS, and numerous major airlines are supporting TAM’s Legacy Gala, a lavish fund-raising event being held at the Hyatt Regency in Long Beach, Calif. on May 3, 2014. This star-studded event will set Petgrave’s next-level plans in motion, and you can be assured aviation’s A-list will be in attendance.
In December 2013, Ebony magazine named Petgrave to its “Power 100” list as one of the 100 most powerful and influential African-Americans. Says Petgrave, humbly, “I was chosen not for what I have, or for where I come from, or for how many people know me, but rather for what I do.
“The May 3rd fundraiser will enable us to enhance the lives of millions of kids. Our accomplishments impact people around the world in a profound way. They start to believe they can do anything.”
Going forward, the work being performed at TAM by Petgrave and his staff must stay on our collective radar screens. It must. Because people that can perform this kind of magic do not come along every day.
If you are in a position to help this cause with a sponsorship or donation, I strongly urge you to visit tamuseum.org or call (310) 938-2727 and pledge your support, because this program has serious possibilities and even national implications, and we all want to know where it leads.
CESSNA: Dan Pimentel has worked in journalism and graphic design since 1979, and is the president and creative director of Celeste/Daniels Advertising and Design (celestedaniels.com). He’s an instrument-rated private pilot and has been writing the Airplanista Aviation Blog (airplanista.com) since 2005. You can find him on Twitter as @Av8rdan. Send questions or comments to .