Senior Becomes One of the Youngest Black Pilots in U.S.

On Aug. 17, senior Christopher Ballinger became one of the youngest licensed Black pilots in the U.S. After eight weeks of intense training at the Air Force Junior ROTC Flight Academy, Ballinger was given the opportunity to test for his Private Pilot License (PPL). He successfully completed the final check ride on his 17th birthday, barely meeting the minimum age requirement for a PPL.

Since his freshman year of high school, Ballinger knew that flying was his passion. Riding roller coasters and playing flight-simulation video games only increased his interest, and soon enough, Ballinger began searching for programs and scholarships that could help turn his aspirations into reality.

After applying to a three-week program, Aim High Flight Academy, Ballinger was referred to the Air Force JROTC Flight Academy, a selective 8-week-long program where participants are given the chance to obtain a private pilot license.

As part of an effort to counteract the U.S. pilot shortage, the Flight Academy is “intended to inspire and encourage high school youth toward aviation careers,” according to Air University.

Even through the Flight Academy, earning one’s PPL is no simple task.

Ballinger explained how he was placed with eight other kids to stay in Walla Walla, Washington, one of the 20 different U.S. colleges that host the Air Force-sponsored program. For the next two months, Ballinger spent an hour and a half daily practicing in the air with an instructor and six hours at the local airport preparing for his certifications.

Ballinger explains that he  spent the first five weeks studying for the Federal Aviation Administration written exam, a 60-question multiple choice test.

In addition, the Flight Academy students took an oral assessment administered by an FAA-designated examiner. The test was included within the final check ride that Ballinger completed at the end of the JROTC program.

Ballinger described how he and the other trainees woke up at 6 a.m., even as early as 4:30 a.m. on some days, to get ahead of the winds. Paired with a further two hours of daily ground school, the program was a significant time commitment. According to WJLA, Ballinger spent a total of 55 hours in the air.

“Overall, it was a very hard and demanding experience, but it was definitely worth it,” Ballinger said.

Ballinger described driving a single-engine plane as “freedom.”

“There’s no one else in the air, really, You’re the one in control of the plane,” he continued.

Ballinger’s achievement earned him features in multiple media outlets, including WJLA ABC News, WUSA 9, BET and Fox 5 DC, which even hosted him for an in-person segment.

Ballinger’s identity as a Black pilot is also impactful. According to Air University, minorities only make up about 12% of pilots.

Ballinger’s success provides visibility and hope for young children of color who may not feel represented or welcomed in professions such as aviation.

“As someone who has had mentors in the aviation field who are also Black, I know how important it is to have one,” Ballinger said. “There is nothing better than to see someone just like you achieve dreams like yours because that shows it is possible,” he added.

Having already earned his PPL, Ballinger now has his sights set on even bigger goals. He hopes to join the Air Force and travel the world.

Ballinger ultimately hopes his success will inspire future generations of pilots.

“I hope I can be someone people look up to, not only in my community, but to anyone who hears my story,” he said.

Ballinger also offered advice for aspiring pilots and other young people.

“Look for any and all opportunities,” he said. “If one shows up, take it, because I promise you it will pay off — even if it doesn’t feel like it, in the long run or maybe right after, you will see results.”