Kansas City kids become aviators at RedTail Academy

Local nonprofit RedTail Academy helps underrepresented youth spread their wings by becoming certified pilots.


All cleared for take off.

Photo by Redtails Academy

The flight plan

We’re soaring, flying. (That one is for those of you from the original High School Musical era.) If you know a kid that wants to literally soar + fly, you should check out RedTail Academy.

Started in 2020, RedTail Academy is a local nonprofit that helps underrepresented youths become certified pilots — and it’s the first of its kind in the country. So far, 25 students have completed the program.

The idea came from passionate professionals of the aviation industry that wanted to make a difference.

“I get the chance to inspire youth and connect them to career possibilities in the field of aviation,” Executive Director Patrick Nelson said. “More importantly, I’m part of something way bigger than I.”

The school’s name comes from the Tuskegee Airmen. They were the first African-American fighter pilots and are regarded as the most successful flight team during World War II. Their planes’ painted-on, bright red tails earned them the nickname “the redtails.”

It’s extra fitting that the school’s flight lessons are held at the Charles E. McGee terminal at the downtown airport, which is named to honor Kansas City’s own Tuskegee Airman.

How it works

Students complete both bookwork and flightwork (including flight simulations + flying a real airplane) in preparation for written, oral, and practical certification exams.

Nelson says 2024’s curriculum is getting a refresh. It will be broken into two five-month segments called “Modules of Aviation 101" which will cover subjects such as:

  • “The Pilot Experience”
  • “Aviation Maintenance”
  • “Air Traffic Control”
  • “Airport Operations”
  • “Aviation History”

“The format we are developing will allow outlier organizations to introduce aviation remotely. Our goal is to present in the now but to create pathways for the future,” Nelson said.

flight simulator 2 .jpeg

Here a student and her teacher grace the cockpit of a flight simulator.

Photo by Redtails Academy

To enroll, future fliers should:

  • Be between ages 16-19
  • Have a minimum high school G.P.A. of 2.5
  • Submit a letter of recommendation from a teacher or coach
  • Write a 500+ word essay on why they want to fly
  • Complete a 30-minute interview

Ways to get involved

Want to support the mission? Here are four flight paths you can take:

  • Mentor | The school is always searching for people with aviation backgrounds to mentor students.
  • Ambassador | Teachers, youth workers, parents, and anyone else involved in the community can help spread the word.
  • Sponsor | Cover the costs for a kid to become a pilot.
  • Donor | Donate as little as $10/month, time, or resources like fuel + equipment. Pro tip: The school is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit so all donations are tax deductible.