Stephen Ferreica with his mother, Stephanie Ferreica, and Mt. Olive CME pastor Presiding Bishop Peris J. Lester I. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

Stephen Ferreira, the first student in Shelby County Schools to graduate with a private pilot’s license, was honored on Dec. 26 by Pastor Peris Lester I and the Mount Olive Cathedral CME congregation.

“In light of all of the violence and the killing our young people are inflicting against each other,” said Lester, “honoring such an accomplished young, Black man gives all of us a great ray of hope. 

“We must change the narrative about our young people. We must start speaking about the positive. Our young people who are actually doing something deserve to be recognized.”

Ferreira, 17, a senior at East High School, was bitten by the aviation bug when he was barely a teenager.

“It was the summer I was going into the seventh grade,” said Ferreira. “I attended aviation camp at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. It was a kid’s introduction to aviation. On the last day of camp, they took us up for an actual flight, and that was it. I was hooked.”

Ferreira returned home with a determination to make flying his career.

“I was attending Snowden in middle school, and I had planned all my life to go to Central High School,” said Ferreira. “But when I was in the eighth grade, the STEM Program brought aviation to East High. I immediately changed my mind about Central and set my sights on East.”

The outstanding senior graduates with the distinguished honor of being among young pilots earning their pilot’s license before leaving high school. He has 76.1 flying hours.

In both the civilian and military sectors, there has been a historical and long-standing dearth of pilots. 

Presently, only an estimated 1.2 percent of all the commercial airline pilots are African American. In the U.S. Air Force, there are 12,639 pilots. Only 236 are African Americans. 

To address the issue of more diversity in the aviation industry, the Tennessee Board of Regents in December unanimously approved a program at Southwest Tennessee Community College to “help area students take flight in the aviation industry.” 

STCC officials said the program, which starts this month, is the first-ever two-year program of its kind in Tennessee.

College is on the horizon for young pilot Stephen Ferreira and the East High School senior is zeroing in on a choice with a strong aviation program. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley/The New Tri-State Defender)

The sky is literally the limit for Ferreira and other young African Americans who are considering aviation as a career. Both sectors are vigorously involved in the recruitment of minorities.

Ferreira has chosen the civilian sector as his ideal career path.

“I have chosen to go to college after graduation and pursue my flight instructor’s license while I am still in school,” said Ferreira. “After college, I plan to work as a flight instructor until I have enough hours to earn my commercial pilot’s license.”

To earn a CFI (Certified Flight Instructor) license, the individual must log a total of 250 hours. For a commercial license, 1,500 flight hours are required.

“That may seem like a lot of hours,” said Ferreira. “But my first flight instructor earned enough hours for his commercial pilot’s license in two years. So, it’s not really as difficult as it seems.”

Ferreira’s mother, Stephanie Ferreira, has watched her son’s journey since adolescence. She has learned to “trust God” and not show fear when it’s time for another flying lesson.

“I have just taken things in stride over the years,” said Stephanie Ferreira. “I didn’t want to be one of those parents who conveys fear every time their children leave the house. But last year, when he was only 16, the solo flights began for Stephen. I pray and pray, but then I can move on with my day. I trust God with my child.”

As young Ferreira looks at choosing a college, he is finding that many are choosing him.

“I have been accepted at every college I have applied to,” said Ferreira. “I am looking at schools with a strong aviation program, of course. If I were to choose my top three picks so far, they would be Western Michigan University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and Sewanee in Tennessee.”

Wherever Ferreira chooses to attend college, his plans for a commercial pilot career will bring him back to Memphis.

“I will come back to Memphis after college,” said Ferreira. “All of my family and friends are here. I am a homebody, so I’ve never really considered settling anywhere else. I love my city. I love Memphis.”