Hands gripping the controls, 11-year-old Amani Muli keeps his eyes steady on the simulated horizon.
“There's the runway. You're going to miss it,” says classmate Aiden Wilson, grabbing the top of the pilot chair where Amani sits.
“We're about 8 miles out from the runway,” says Michael J. Cook, a retired Air Force colonel.
“What? It looks so close,” Amani says.
As his plane nears the runway, he slowly pulls back on the controls. The ground comes closer and closer, but at the last second Cook pulls up the aircraft. Amani pops up from the chair and classmate Devon Gramazio, 11, takes his place.
In his 30 years in the Air Force, Cook logged more than 7,000 hours piloting planes. But on Monday afternoon he served as co-pilot for nine students from Alfonza W. Davis Middle School. The visit to Offutt Air Force Base was sponsored by the Alfonza W. Davis chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
“We attempt to use aviation and aeronautics as a hook to gain their interest,” said Bob Rose, chapter president of the Alfonza W. Davis chapter.“Then we try to convince them that by embracing education, they will be in a much better position to achieve their dreams.”
Rose joined the Air Force in 1954 — six years after President Harry S. Truman integrated the military. But in his experience, Rose said, not everyone got Truman's memo.
He has an idea of what the black pilots, bombardiers and others trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama might have experienced. Now 77, Rose works to preserve the legacy of those men by trying to inspire young people to follow their dreams.
Since 2012 the Alfonza W. Davis chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen has taken about 300 students on tours around Offutt. This year the tours have expanded to include not only the flight simulator, but visits to the control tower and a demonstration of how military dogs work.
The group targets underprivileged kids but accepts all boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 18.
The kids initially are slightly overwhelmed by the simulator, which is full of buttons, lights, levers and screens, Rose said. But all the hesitation is gone by the time they pile on the bus to head home. They're talking about who crashed, who almost crashed and who might have a future in aviation.
“In 28 years in the Air Force I never aspired to fly,” Rose said. “But I can certainly recommend it to any teenager or middle-schooler.”
As Devon Gramazio took control of the simulated plane, his classmates sat behind him, watching the ground fall away.
“Here we go,” Aiden Wilson said.