CANNON AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
As Cadet Bryan Driskell, who had sworn he would never want to fly for his first year at the Air Force Academy, flew thousands of feet in the air, the world beneath him and sky above him changed his mind. He had joined a flight class just to confirm his doubts about flying, was afraid of heights and knew that being a pilot is a dangerous career. He had done his best to stick to a career to make sure he didn’t die.
But the control, teamwork, and freedom of flying changed his mind that day. When he made that decision, he would also become part of the 2% of black pilots in the Air Force.
The Inspector General of the Department of the Air Force recently concluded their study on racial disparity in military discipline processes, personnel development, and career opportunities as they pertain to black Airmen and Space Guardians. Among multiple findings, it was discovered that as of May 2020, there were 305 black pilots out of the roughly 15,000 active duty pilots in the Air Force.
Now 1st Lt. Driskell, an AC-130W Stinger II aircraft pilot with the 16th Special Operations Squadron, did not come from a military family where he was raised around the culture. Instead, he was raised in sports.
“My mom and dad went to Duke University for sports, and all five of my siblings played sports,” Driskell said. “I was 100% sure I was going to play professional football growing up. It was my deadset truth. If you tried to tell junior-year me I was going to join the military, I would’ve called you crazy.”
When first speaking with Air Force football recruiters Blaine Morgan, the Air Force Academy offensive coordinator at the time, and Troy Calhoun, the AFA’s current head coach, Driskell had a glaring question on the forefront of his mind.
“I looked at the recruiter and asked ‘Am I going to die?’” Driskell reminisced. “He just kinda looked at me and said ‘It depends on what you do.’ I was terrified to die, and I was also terrified of heights. Up to my sophomore year at the academy, I would always tell people I wanted to stay on the ground, no matter how much they asked me if I wanted to be a pilot.”
During his sophomore year, Driskell decided to sate his curiosity and test his fear.
“There was a flying class at the academy and I thought I would try it before I burned that bridge. I absolutely loved it. It’s like being in a whole new dimension, and it beat my fear of heights because I was in control up there. It was beautiful. It changed my heart and made me want to become a pilot.”
As Driskell became a pilot for the 16 SOS, he quickly learned an AC-130W could not do its job with just a pilot, it needed its full team.
“In my aircraft, we have a lot of different jobs happening at once, like the gunners who are not only experts on the ammunition itself, but also two of our most important weapons,” Driskell explained. “We rely on that. Our combat systems officers and navigators are our battlefield experts, that go over the operations and plan how we move around the airspace. They’re talking to the ground parties and relaying that to us, making sure we understand what our teams on the ground see and know who we are protecting. Then there’s the pilots, who not only have to have full awareness of what’s around them, but we have everyone’s lives in our hands based on what we do. The engineers are our systems experts that can fix stuff on the fly.”
With the required teamwork and expertise needed to perform the 16 SOS’s mission, Drisekll found parallels between his passion of flying and his passion for football.
“We have experts in every single field, and it stops everyone from doing everything at once,” Driskell continued. “In football, you have the quarterback, running back, receiver, and they have to know their positions so someone else doesn’t have to. All those working parts are working together.”
For Driskell, there cannot be substitutions on his team. Each member is trained to do their job to the best of their ability on the AC-130W to carry out the aircraft’s specialized air power.
“I can’t walk onto the plane and try to do what the combat systems operators can do while also trying to fly,” Driskell said. “It’s a system of trust, of letting them do their job so we can do ours. You do what you do, I’ll do what I do, and we’ll back each other up. At the end of the day, each person doing their job individually creates the effectiveness of the team.”
While flying has its own appeal for Driskell, the reliance of the team and sense of comradery is its own charm.
“That’s what I love about my team,” Driskell said. If people mess up, it’s not hard for them to come forward about it or for someone else to point it out, because that’s the environment we are in. We all want to get better as a team, so when there’s a mistake we all want to fix it.”
Whether flying in the sky or performing additional edits, Driskell is part of the 2% of black pilots in the Air Force. He has his own thoughts on why the number is so low.
“I think there aren’t as many black people in the Air Force flyers program because typically, as a young kid, you want to do something that you can see yourself doing,” Driskell said. “You’ll see a lot of little kids, especially little African-American kids, that want to be athletes, basketball and football players, because that’s what they see on TV. You don’t typically see black pilots, black doctors. We’re making huge steps in that regard, but you still don’t see that kind of thing very often. Whereas, some of my white counterparts say they’ve wanted to be pilots since they were 5-6 years old, that their dads were pilots and stuff like that. I never thought about being a pilot, but I think back to it and I never saw a pilot that looked like me growing up. It wasn’t until I went to the Air Force academy and did my own research that I learned about black pilots. But until then, I didn’t know stuff like the Red Tails. Because we aren’t exposed to that, it can limit the perspective of children. That might be a good reason why you don’t see many black rated officers.”
According to Driskell, being black in the Air Force has its own challenges, but they are challenges he has already experienced in life before.
“It’s not just the military, it’s life,” Driskell said. “We are exposed to forms of discrimination. I don’t want to diminish any work that other people put in. But to me, it feels like there is a level that everyone starts at. I feel like, sometimes, as the black community, when we walk in, we start a step below and have to work for the right just to be noticed, to reach that same starting point. Everyone else is already there, while we prove ourselves just to be noticed, and then continue from that.”
Despite the challenges he has faced, Driskell has also found people attempting to understand what he has gone through and what they can do to help.
“In the military, I’ve definitely had people reach out and ask me about my experiences, especially with the protests over this past year,” Driskell said. “They reached out and asked me about how things can be different. As far as the military as a whole goes, they’re bringing awareness to this kind of topic. I don’t think they really know how to get the roots of it, since there’s generational stuff to it, but I think the fact that they are trying to take a step and expose people to it is the first thing. It’s getting people to listen. It’s an important step.”
From a football player set on his path to go professional to a cadet sure that he would never fly. 1st Lt. Bryan Driskell has changed his course into being a pilot, hoping to be the model for any young children looking for someone that looks like them in the Air Force.
“Don’t let people build their concept of who you are. If you set yourself to be a pilot, a doctor, if that’s how you see yourself, regardless of statistics or what you may go through, you have to have an extremely supportive circle and a resilient mind until you get there. Because I think that’s something we can fall into. People will try to build their concepts of you, but the only one that matters, the only one that sticks with you when you go to sleep every night, is your own. Be super strong and super motivated. That’s what’s gonna get you through.”