Since 1997, black pilots from across America have come together in Pine Bluff for Operation Skyhook Annual Fly-in and Flying Competition -- an event aimed at celebrating aviation. Hundreds gathered at the Pine Bluff Regional Airport for the annual three-day event at Grider Field, beginning on Friday.

“The motivation behind it at the time was just old guys with toys having fun,” said Operation Skyhook Annual Fly-in and Flying Competition co-founder Horace Noble. “Then we enjoyed it so that we decided to give the disadvantaged kids a chance to experience aviation because so few minority kids get a chance to be involved in this type of lifestyle.”

Back in 1971, Noble and Jesse Hayes devised the plan to bring black pilots together for a dose of friendly competition and camaraderie. According to the Black Pilots of America’s website, it is their largest event.

More than 100 pilots gathered to participate in competitions during the Memorial Day Weekend event including past national president Palmer Sullins, Jr., a retired colonel in the military.

“Most of us got our inspiration from the Tuskegee Airmen and their experiences in the military and we’ve all benefited from it,” said Sullins, who served in the military for 33 years as a pilot. “It was out of that, that we have an opportunity to try to pass onto the youth in America how wonderful it is to consider aviation as a career.”

Ken Johnson, event organizer, says this year’s operation brought pilots from near and far to southeast Arkansas. The pilots are expected to participate in various “serious flying competitions” in their personal aircraft.

Johnson added that competitors with the best flying skills will be awarded trophies during their banquet. Additionally, pilots will also offer rides to youth as a part of their Young Eagle Flights program.

“Our mission is to expose kids to aviation,” said Sullins, adding he grew up in Tuskegee around the father of black aviation -- Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson. “We understand and know that not all of the kids are going to be pilots. But, of course, we want to put them in the cockpit and put them around the airplane, so that they get the exposure.”

Johnson and others hope the event will continue to be a source for youth interested in aviation and even draw more into the career field.

“We need to continue to inspire and motivate and try to cultivate an interest for the young people to come out and experience flight because if you don’t want to become a pilot there are many other aviation opportunities or careers that you can pursue,” Johnson said. “If you don’t go into aviation just the exposure of being around something positive like aviation should motivate you to pursue any career you decide to go into.”