Madison: This is Camp Willa requesting a flyby

Registration is still open for the Madison-based nonprofit that's expanding aviation opportunities for underserved youth.
Camp Willa participant sits in the cockpit with the door open smiling.
Courtesy of Willa Brown Aviation Academy
Tolan Flores emerges with a smile after taking a Young Eagle ride at Camp Willa in 2021.

For the second year in a row, the Willa Brown Aviation Academy, or WBAA, will host Camp Willa, a one-week day camp that caters to kids 12 to 17. This program will run July 11-15 and seeks to expand access to the various experiences and careers aviation has to offer through tours of airport facilities and hands-on activities such as flight simulators. Camp Willa participants will also have the opportunity to take a Young Eagle Flight, a free airplane ride program through the Experimental Aircraft Association, or EAA. The whole idea is to introduce more kids to potential careers in aviation — particularly kids who’ve been historically overlooked. Only 7-9% of pilots are women and about 96% of U.S. pilots identify as white.

Various organizations have sought to encourage diversity in the aviation industry for decades. Among some are the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals and Black Wings in Aviation. The Willa Brown Aviation Academy is a non-profit educational organization that takes a more localized approach. This all-volunteer group seeks to promote aviation education with a particular emphasis on the underserved youth in the Madison area. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done, as far as culture within aviation. It’s still very white,” says Madison-based pilot Fareed Guyot, president of the Willa Brown Aviation Academy. “It is changing rapidly, and there’s a lot of minorities that are taking huge pride and blossoming and establishing themselves in new positions” 

Camp Willa goes beyond the average run-of-the-mill summer camp. It seeks to showcase the great deal of careers available within the industry — from mechanics to engineers to administrators. “It’s a lifelong endeavor — aviation,” Guyot says. “We’re not trying to make just professional pilots … we’re also trying to make enthusiasts. What I want people to understand is that it is really accessible and that it’s multifaceted.” 

While programs like Camp Willa are great introductory experiences to initially pull kids in, equally important is to continue to engage them afterward. For those at WBAA, their biggest hope is that aviation education continues. A handful of last year’s attendees joined some of the board members last month for a “Girls Can Fly ” day in Hartford organized through the Madison Youth Aviation Club. 

The organization’s namesake is a very example of how minority groups have broken barriers within the aviation industry. Willa Brown, a civil rights activist and the first African American woman to earn a commercial pilot’s license in the United States, made great strides for African Americans at a time when representation and access was limited.  

“I think more and more we’re discovering truly how African Americans built this country,” Guyot says. “And now we’re finding ways to connect African Americans with their own history.”

Guyot says Wisconsin has always had a strong tradition of aviation. The Experimental Aircraft Association, or EAA, was founded in Milwaukee and is now based in Oshkosh, and boasts an international community of more than 200,000 recreational aviation enthusiasts.

“There’s a lot of homegrown people that are still fulfilling that kind of local aviation spirit of enjoying a nice day, flying, and also making a community out at the airport,” Guyot says. 

Still, the opportunity to form aviation-centric communities has been lacking within minority and youth communities, and efforts have been piecemeal. 

“I [want] to kind of get a nucleus going again,” he says. “We need a lot of these underrepresented groups to populate our industry so that we can truly take advantage of everybody’s talents.” 

Registration for Camp Willa closes June 19. 

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