Magazine Features

On wings like eagles

“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school,” remembers Thaddaeus Stanford. Although he’s the son of Salvation Army officers Majors Demetrius and Juanita M. Stanford, his individual destiny was a mystery. “Everybody had set a path for what they wanted to do and where they wanted to go to college and everything, but I had no clue,” he said.

Thad, as his friends like to call him, is a lovable and at times funny kind of guy. They know him for his unconventional catchphrases, his numerous and entertaining stories, and his love of pizza.

One day as a high school senior in Strongsville, Ohio, an offer came along that would change the course of his life. “It kind of all started when we had the Career Shadowing Project,” Thaddaeus remembers. His teacher explained it as an opportunity to be exposed to career possibilities and to see what an employee who holds a particular job does every day.

“We could either decide to stay in school and graduate with the rest of our class and the rest of our friends and everything, or we could decide to ‘career shadow’ anywhere we wanted to, as long as we logged the hours. We had to have our grades up to par before we could actually qualify for the shadowing project. They also said we got to opt–out of all homework and all classes!”

Teachers encouraged students to use their network to create a job shadowing experience, but Thaddaeus still wondered what kind of job he would shadow. “I have to find something I want to do,” he thought.

Finally, he got a clue.

First sight

“One day, I was on the train. I looked out the window and saw a big Southwest Airlines jet getting ready to land. I gazed at it. I was like, all right, why not go to an airport instead of sitting in school all day?

“I didn’t want to be a pilot, but I was like, hey, why not see what airplanes are about because I’ve never been exposed to aviation a day in my life.” Indeed, the closest thing to aviation Thaddaeus had done was to fold and throw paper planes.

A low science grade threatened Thaddaeus’s shadow project even before it got off the ground. “I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it. So, about a couple weeks passed and my teacher says, ‘You need to get your grade up if you want to do this senior project.’ I thought, “There’s got to be a way to fix it!”

Eventually, Thaddaeus and his teacher worked something out. “I crafted a presentation at home and sent it to the class,” he said. It was on Daniel Bernoulli’s principle, which explains how it is possible for air flowing over and under an airplane wing to cause it to physically lift the plane off the ground.

“After I made my presentation to the class, I got my grade bumped up just a tad and was able to qualify for the senior project,” Thaddaeus said. One of his high school teachers actually lived near Weltzien Skypark, a small, privately–owned airport in Wadsworth, Ohio, that offered flight instruction, aircraft rentals, and classes. 

Thaddaeus began logging hours at Skypark. His chores included everything from mowing the grass, to towing single–engine Cessna airplanes, to assisting the maintenance and mechanics crews. “They weren’t allowed to pay me in cash, but they put money into a flight account for me,” he said.

First flight

One day, the aviation mechanic needed to fly to another airport to pick up some parts. “He asked if I wanted to come with him. So, I said, ‘Why not?’ I’ve always wanted to fly in a plane. So, I did it. He let me fly. He said, ‘all right, take one turn to the left, and stay on a heading at north and stay at 3,000 feet.’”

Several minutes into the flight, the mechanic recognized Thaddaeus’s passion for flying. “‘You seem like a natural,’” he said. Thad, only 18 years old, followed other instructions from the mechanic and kept going. “That’s when I fell in love with flying. I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life,” he said.

After that, Thaddaeus began flying regularly. He paid for the flight lessons with some of the money he had saved for college. As time went on, he took more lessons. “I started taking it very seriously. I was getting closer to having my private pilot’s license.”

First hand

Last summer, Thaddaeus served on the Salvation Army’s Hands–On mission team to the U.S., Virgin Islands. At the time, his parents were in Cleveland, Ohio, preparing to move to a new appointment in Philadelphia, Pa. On his last day at the house before leaving for the Hands–On mission, he was also supposed to take his private pilot’s license check ride.

The check ride was his opportunity to demonstrate many of the maneuvers he had learned during training. He was to start off on a cross–country; a slow flight, stalls, steep turns, reference the ground, and perform normal short field and soft field takeoffs and landings. “But it turns out that there was a thunderstorm that day,” remembers Thaddaeus. “I couldn’t even complete it.

“I was so upset. I didn’t know what to do because I had studied my tail off. I was like, I gotta pass this thing. That’s like—the biggest day of my life! Then another storm comes and there’s nothing for me to do because I leave to go to the Virgin Islands the next day. I was stuck and my family was moving to Philadelphia. There was no way I could go back to Ohio and finish the check ride,” he said.

Thaddaeus made 20 to 30 phone calls to flying facilities in the Virgin Islands to see if he could complete his flight training and earn his license there. After a few days, he finally found a facility where he could conduct the check ride and qualify.

“It was the most intense summer that I’ve ever had,” Thaddaeus said. “I was so focused. I never learned so much about myself, time management, and decision–making as I did while being on the Hands–On mission team.” Indeed, the team spent much of its time helping families recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, which devastated the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

“On the evening of our very last day on the island, I took my check ride in a Cessna 172 and I passed it. That was the happiest day of my life.”

Thaddaeus credits Major Phil Lloyd, then territorial youth secretary, his Hands–On team, and other officer mentors for their support and guidance.

First meeting

Recently, Thaddaeus got a rare opportunity to meet Dr. Eugene J. Richardson Jr., a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary group of African–American combat and bomber pilots who fought in World War II. Under the motto “Spit Fire!” they formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces from 1941–46.

Richardson, born the son of a minister in 1925 in Cleveland, said that being a pilot was his dream come true. In 1945, he flew the P–40 and P–47 aircraft in training. That same year, the war in Europe ended a few weeks after his graduation, before he had a chance to fly a combat mission. He was discharged in June 1946.

Thanks to Shirley Williams of the Philadelphia Kroc Corps Community Center, Thaddaeus enjoyed the first of many meetings with Dr. Richardson. Williams, who has been a colleague of Richardson, a former principal and administrator in the Philadelphia school system, introduced him to Thaddaeus.

“It was Dr. Richardson who told me about the American Airlines Academy,” said Thaddaeus, “So, without him, I wouldn’t even be where I am right now. Ms. Shirley from the Philadelphia Kroc Center gave me his number, so I called him, and he told me to put in an application with the American Airlines Academy.

“That day, I got off the phone and realized I had actually talked to a Tuskegee Airman,” said Thaddaeus. “I stayed up all night filling out that long application.”

Submitting the application led to a video interview and then to a face–to–face one in Dallas, Texas. That encounter led to Thaddaeus taking a 3 1/2–hour pilot aptitude test. At the time, he was among 8,000 applicants under consideration. In the final analysis, he and a handful of others were selected to join the Academy’s latest cohort.

First ‘Goodbye’

Prior to leaving for the Academy, several of Thad’s friends in Philadelphia paid tribute to him one evening. They  treated him to a fun night out, complete with games, karaoke, and food. “We will surely miss Thaddaeus so much,” wrote one friend, “We can never thank him enough for the memories he’s blessed us with.”

by Warren L. Maye

Previous post

Faith in Art

Next post

Talking Tablets