The Black Pilots of America have returned to Pine Bluff for their 22nd annual fly-in during the three-day Memorial Day weekend. Each year, BPA members fly from all over America and land in Pine Bluff for fun, competitions, and to introduce aviation to future pilots as part of Operation Skyhook.

“Each year it gets more exciting because the momentum from one year carries over to the next year, and it just expands,” said Danny Fuqua, president of the BPA Central Florida Chapter. “And each year we come here, we feel like we make an impact on the local citizens here in Pine Bluff.”

Fuqua revealed that the most exciting thing about Operation Skyhook is interacting with the kids because their purpose is to encourage youth to see themselves as aviators, air traffic controllers, aircraft mechanics and more.

Through the Robert B. Griffin Chapter of the BPA of Central Florida, Fuqua helps make an impact on youth using workshops, visits to the Boys and Girls Club, community church events and flight simulators to stimulate conversation about aviation.

The Robert B. Griffin Chapter is a regular at local high school career days, where they stress the importance of education.

The chapter is named in honor of Robert B. Griffin, who made history as the first black flight engineer in the United States and as a Tuskegee Airman.

“This is a great honor that they’ve named a chapter after him,” said Joyce Griffin, wife of the former Tuskegee Airman.

Griffin has been lending a hand in increasing aviation appreciation in youth since the founding of BPA Inc. in 1997. He was also involved in the organization formerly known as the Negro Airmen International.

Darryl E. Smith, a competing pilot from Houston, Texas, was one of the 30 airmen to test his skills in the Pine Bluff competition. Smith began his flying career during his stint in Negro Airmen International in 1992 and has accumulated 33 years of flight experience over the years.

Smith, like many of the participating pilots, competes in a privately-owned aircraft that he flies for fun.

Accompanying Smith on his competition flight was Floyd Miles Jr., president of Black Pilots of America Inc. and a commercial pilot.

Miles has been an active part of BPA Inc. for as long as it has been established and was also a part of Negro Airmen International. His career as a pilot has spanned the past 30 years, flying both commercially and recreationally.

There were also some newer faces among the competition.

Torrance Hollins, 23, and Rayjhan Bethune, 24, were the two youngest pilots to participate in the flight competition.

Hollins, of St. Louis, began flying in 2013 and is the first pilot in his family. He has been participating in BPA Inc.’s Fly-In for two years.

“It’s amazing,” Hollins said. “Just walking around, and everybody’s happy for you and you’re happy for them. It’s just a bunch of success over here.”

Bethune, of Atlanta, made history as the second-youngest captain while working as a pilot for Delta Airlines. He was first named captain at the age of 21.

Operation Skyhook is the largest event attended of the four major annual events conducted by the BPA.

The kickoff for Operation Skyhook with the Black Pilots of America began on Friday at the Grider Field Municipal Airport with a “Welcome to the City” event held by the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce’s Red Coats.

“On behalf of the Black Pilots of America, I would like to say that it is good to be back home again for the 22nd year,” said BPA Membership Chairman Fred Lewis.

In the absence of Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington, her assistant, Keidra Burrell, presented a welcome and a proclamation to the BPA on her behalf.

“This event brings a weekend full of aviation-related activities and opportunities in flying to our community,” Burrell said. “It also honors the historical significance of the Tuskegee Airmen that formed the foundation for blacks in the field of aviation.”

The proclamation goes on to say, “The City of Pine Bluff is honored to be recognized as the ‘Home of the Black Pilots of America’ and look forward to this annual event. This exhibition provides a boost to the economic development of the city and the Pine Bluff Regional Airport. However, most importantly, is the positive impact the BPA have in our community. Our citizenry is enriched when this remarkable organization provides inspiration to our youth.”

Washington declared May 25, 2018, as “Operation Skyhook Fly-In Day” in the City of Pine Bluff and “encourages all citizens to recognize the work of the BPA and to join in the celebration of the blacks in aviation.”

Other Pine Bluff officials also presented a welcome to the BPA, including Kenneth “Ken” Johnson, chairman of the Pine Bluff Aviation Commission, Pine Bluff Police Chief Kelvin Sergeant, Pine Bluff Fire Chief Shauwn Howell, Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson, Director of the Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce Nancy McNew, and Sheri Storie, director of the Pine Bluff Advertising and Promotions Commission.

Following the welcoming event, the Flour Bomb Drop Competition began.

The competition consisted of the pilots trying to drop flour bombs onto a designated target while flying at least 500 feet in the air. Pilots received points depending upon how close they came to the target.

Charles Masters, of Texas, who has been a pilot for over 50 years, said that he has never hit the target directly in its center, but “I have gotten points for getting pretty close.”

On Saturday, the Pilot Proficiency Competition began at 10 a.m., and at 10 a.m. today, the pilots will compete in the Balloon Burst and Spot Landing. At the end of each day, when all competitions are complete, BPA members volunteer to give airplane rides, known as “Young Eagle” flights, to hundreds of kids.

An awards banquet will be held at 6:30 p.m. today at the Pine Bluff Convention Center, where trophies are given to the members who have demonstrated their superior flying skills, as well as the chapter with the highest accumulated points. There is also an individual “Top Gun Award” for the supreme pilot accumulating the highest number of points.