Flying dreams

Julius Alexander has spent a lifetime clearing
obstacles for kids who share his passion for flight.

Young pilot Julius Alexander felt adrenaline running through his veins as he navigated a small plane directly over the Morehouse College campus, flying so low he could read the time off the Harkness Hall clock.

The year was 1956. The stunt was one Julius and a friend had engineered to promote their flying club at Morehouse, which they dubbed the Strato Knights. They dreamed of being fighter pilots, and this was their chance to pretend it was true, making steep turns and other daring maneuvers.

Let’s be sure they see us, Julius and his friend agreed.

It was a stunt Julius would live to regret.

Soon after landing, the two student pilots were ordered to report to the Civil Aeronautics Administration’s hangar.

Seated across the desk was a CAA official, who took out a stack of pictures and threw them across the desk.

The photos were horrifying. One showed the aftermath of a plane that had crashed into a barn. Another showed two badly burned bodies that looked like charcoal.

You were flying between the trees, the CAA official said.

The two student pilots didn’t realize it was the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing, or that they were flying so low, people on the ground ducked, thinking the planes might crash into a building. Frightened onlookers had called the FBI and Dobbins Air Force base.

The matter was sent up to Washington, D.C., to be handled by the Civil Aeronautics Board at headquarters.

After surrendering his prized student flying certificate, Julius couldn’t sleep in the nights that followed, fearful that he and his friend might be arrested and go to jail.

> Read the letter Julius wrote in 1957, pleading his case to the Civil Aeronautics Board

He had wanted to be a pilot since he was a boy, but now his dream was put on hold. He couldn’t have known then that it would take a lot of ambition, a little ingenuity and several years before he would ultimately achieve his goal. Much less, that his passion would fuel the passions of others, changing so many lives in remarkable ways.


Eyes to the skies

Julius grew up in the University Homes housing project in Atlanta during World War II.

“Every day, I could see airplanes fly all over in my area. All kinds of planes,” he recalls. He liked to imagine himself in the cockpit.

On the way to visit his grandparents in Montgomery, Alabama, Julius’ family would drive past Tuskegee, the historically black school where African-American military pilots were trained during the war.

Julius fondly recalls stopping there one time and seeing all those airplanes and fighter pilots and trainers up close. As a bonus, the PX sold Milky Way candy bars for 4 cents.

“Back then you couldn’t get Milky Ways … You could hardly get any kind of candy.”

After graduating from Booker T. Washington High School in 1954, Julius and his brother, George, prepared to attend Tuskegee Institute. Their parents had gotten divorced, but their father had agreed to pay for college.

The day before the brothers were to leave for Tuskegee, they had their foot lockers all packed. Then came a phone call bearing bad news. Their father didn’t have the money to pay their tuition. Their mother, who worked as a nursemaid at Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta, tried to borrow money from a loan company.

“They pretty much laughed at her, trying to borrow money to educate her boys,” Julius says. “It was one of those awakening experiences.”

At the last minute, an aunt wired the money to make the payment. The brothers went off to school and Julius joined the Air Force ROTC. But he struggled with the rigor of his classes and the financial burden.

After their first year, the brothers returned home and got jobs to save money for school. Julius was hired as a porter at Rich’s, reporting to an older porter who made life difficult.

“He wanted to mold me to be like him,” Julius says.

You don’t need an education, the man told him.

But Julius was miserable carrying furniture and mattresses all day. His family had a strong background in education – his grandfather was a doctor, his mother went to Tuskegee Normal School – and going to college was a key ambition.

The porter job at Rich’s was “the only job I had in my life where I hated to get out of bed,” Julius says. “I decided I wanted to do something productive. I just didn’t want to live to work at Rich’s.”

Back then, flying lessons cost $12 an hour, and Julius made enough at Rich’s to take a half-hour lesson in a Piper Cub every two weeks. He told his mother he was “investing” the money. He learned early on that sometimes it was easier to get forgiveness than permission.

But his flight instructor at Fulton County’s airport was tough. Following a particularly hard landing after a flying lesson one day, he criticized Julius for not being committed enough to take more than one short lesson every two weeks. He suggested Julius abandon his dream.

“I quit for a month and I thought about that,” Julius says.

African-Americans were a rarity in the aviation industry. Even today they make up less than 3 percent of commercial pilots.

But Julius would not be dissuaded. He got back into the cockpit. The day he took his first solo flight is one he will always remember.

“That was one of the most exhilarating experiences that I have had, ever,” he says. “I was whistling and singing and overjoyed.”

By fall 1956, Julius was back in school, this time at Morehouse, where he could attend classes and live at home. He joined the student newspaper and the yearbook staff where he cultivated another of his interests — photography. And he continued flying with his student pilot license, until the buzz that brought a halt to his time in the air.

His first year at Morehouse ended on a positive note, though. One day he borrowed a car to drive a woman he knew from high school to choir practice. Jo Ann Sims invited Julius to escort her to a debutante ball. There he saw her dance a ballet to the song “Canadian Sunset,” and he fell in love.

Julius smiles as he speaks to students on the first day of class of the school year for the Aviation Career Enrichment (ACE) program.


Airborne again

Shortly after Julius graduated from Morehouse, he got a job teaching English for Atlanta Public Schools and he married Jo Ann, who was still in school at Spelman. They soon started a family.

But, “there was still this thing hanging over my head,” Julius says.

He had never gotten his pilot’s license.

One day, I’d like to continue my flying lessons, Julius told his wife.

I’ll divorce you, she threatened. You have two kids. You can’t afford it.

By then, they were both working as teachers and had two young children, a mortgage and a car payment. It didn’t make financial sense.

Then, on a drive home from Nashville one day, the young family got into a car accident. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured. When the insurance adjuster came by to offer a $100 settlement, Julius quickly calculated how much it would cost him for flight training to get his pilot’s license. He held out for $350, and the adjuster agreed.

Julius didn’t tell his wife about the check. Instead, he would wake early in the morning before his family and quietly roll the Volkswagen down the driveway, waiting until he was in the street to start the engine and drive to the airport for flying lessons.

By coincidence, his flight instructor was the son of the Civil Aeronautics Administration official who had chastised Alexander for buzzing the Morehouse campus. It was as though a strange circle had been completed.

On Aug. 22, 1964, Julius came home with a bottle of champagne and set it down on the table next to his temporary pilot’s license.

What’s that? his wife asked.

He admitted his covert mission. It had taken him nine years to get his pilot’s license.

Jo Ann’s initial resistance turned to pride.

“I was just happy for him,” she says.

“She was my first passenger,” says Julius.

* * *

While Julius was teaching at Price High School and learning to fly, the nation was engaged in the space race with Russia. NASA’s lunar landing program Project Apollo was underway, and President John F. Kennedy had pledged that the United States would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Interest in math, science, aviation and aerospace was sparked across the nation.

“The country was in high gear,” Julius says.

He heard about a former Navy pilot who launched an afternoon aviation class at Dykes High School in the Atlanta Public Schools system.

We need this at Price High School, Julius told the principal.

The district’s aviation program expanded, and soon Julius and others were teaching aviation at schools around the district, in a program that continued until 1974.

“What happened in my life is my avocation became my vocation,” Julius says.

Meanwhile, never one to work just one job when he could work two, Julius continued to pursue photography, freelancing for the Atlanta Inquirer and moonlighting as a cameraman for Channel 5, where he conducted man-on-the-street interviews.

When he learned that Lockheed was looking for someone with experience in news, aviation and photography to work in their public relations department, he gave up his public school teaching career and TV job to begin what would be a 23-year career at Lockheed.

Julius greets students on the first day of class of the school year for the Aviation Career Enrichment.


Flying ACE

But Julius missed teaching kids to fly airplanes. There was nothing like seeing their self-confidence grow when they learned to master the controls, or the joy they experienced when they first took flight. They reminded him of himself as a boy and his own passion for flying.

So in 1976, he and some pilot friends started a summer aviation youth program for the city of Atlanta. Two years later, he developed a federally funded summer program designed to help prepare youth for careers in aviation. Students were paid minimum wage to participate, and the program grew. But it was shut down a few years later.

That’s when Julius began to envision a nonprofit program that wasn’t dependent on public money, a program funded by donations and student fees, where the instructors were volunteers and students participated not for pay but for the love of aviation.

That’s how in 1980, Julius founded Aviation Career Enrichment (ACE), a weekend flight academy in a trailer at Fulton County Airport, aka Charlie Brown Field.

In the beginning, about a dozen students paid $12 a month to take classes on Saturdays. But it wasn’t easy to keep the program afloat. About a year in, the trailer was repossessed. So Lonnie Robinson, a former student of Julius’ from Price High School who became a US Airways pilot, put a house trailer at Fulton County Airport and leased it to the program. Julius put a flight simulator in one of the bedrooms.

Over time the program grew, and ACE bought its first plane, a Cessna 150, courtesy of a contribution from the Gannett Foundation. Before long, students who had completed all the necessary training requirements were taking their first solo flights.

When Julius retired from Lockheed Martin in 1997, he devoted himself to growing ACE. Lonnie donated a bigger trailer. More flight simulators were added, and their fleet of aircraft grew. In 2013, the program moved into its current location, a former airport administration building at Charlie Brown Field.

Today, about 60 students participate in the program each year, paying $100 a month each in tuition. They study aircraft systems, aerodynamics, flight safety, aviation weather theory, navigation and how to read aeronautical charts, radar and air traffic control communications. And advanced students take flying lessons. A teenager flying once a week can get a license in a year, Julius says.

More than 1,000 students have participated in the program over the last 37 years; about a third complete the program.

Even students who don’t become pilots can benefit from learning about aviation, Julius says.

“What flying does, it teaches you certain disciplines and it makes you special, because you have something that your peer group cannot do,” he says. “It just does so much for their self-esteem.”

Many of his students have gone on to become professional airline pilots for Delta, American and other carriers. But black pilots remain significantly under-represented among commercial airline pilots. Julius has made it his mission to increase the number of black students exposed to aviation and boost the number of black pilots.

“What I try to instill in the students at ACE is you are not a victim,” Julius says. “But if you’re black, if you’re a minority, you’re going to have to be better” than others.

He credits the buzzing incident when he was a teenager and the lessons he learned from it with making him a more safety-conscious instructor.

“It might have taken getting caught,” Julius says.

Photo: Julius helps Tyler-Johnson Muller, 17, and Samuel Matthews (right), 17, as they operate an Airbus A320 simulator at Aviation Career Enrichment (ACE) on Saturday, August 19, 2017.


Next generation pilots

One Saturday last month, 10-year-old Caleb Majors sits in a hallway outside the ACE classrooms with his father, waiting to enroll in the program for the first time.

“I’m trying to really try my hardest to do whatever I can do to become a pilot for Delta,” says Caleb, whose mother is a flight attendant for Delta.

Asked what he likes about flying, Caleb is quick to answer: “The feeling of takeoff. Just the feeling of how cool it is — I really want to be in that seat flying through the air.”

Julius has taught more than 180 pilots through their first solo flights and was enshrined in the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame in 2011.

More than 20 ACE students have gone on to careers flying for airlines, as has Julius’ son Patrick, a captain for Delta.

Julius’ son, Patrick Alexander, is a pilot for Delta Air Lines, and his daughter, Julie Alexander Nixon, is a flight attendant for Delta. Contributed photo

Julius’ son, Patrick Alexander, is a pilot for Delta Air Lines, and his daughter, Julie Alexander Nixon, is a flight attendant for Delta. Contributed photo

Today, Julius, 80, can’t instruct beginning pilots due to a medical condition, but he continues to give advanced flight instruction to pilots training to become flight instructors or seeking additional ratings. And he can still do the thing he loves most — teach young people to fly, just on simulators now.

On a recent summer day at Charlie Brown Field, Julius sits with two students at a simulator.

Demetrius Jefferson, acting as the pilot, sits at a computer work station with an avionics panel next to it displaying an array of radio frequencies for communication and navigation. There’s also a control console with a yoke and throttle.

Alex Marquard, with a mop of brown hair and black-rimmed glasses, sits at a computer behind him acting as the controller, monitoring the flight’s progress. Beside him is Julius, gray-haired with a white handkerchief and iPad in one hand, leaning forward in his seat coaching the two on the mechanics of the flight.

On the simulator, they practice a flight out of the airfield at Charlie Brown. It’s the same airport where Julius learned to fly as a teenager, and where he has taught hundreds of young people to fly since then.

“He has cleared you for takeoff. What are you going to do?” he asks Demetrius.

As the simulated flight begins, Julius offers occasional direction. Once he is comfortable with the procedures, Julius — clad in his standard uniform of khakis and navy polo shirt with his senior wings pinned above an ACE logo — leans back in his seat, peering down the glasses resting on his nose. He watches as Demetrius executes a figure eight on the flight simulator and makes a safe landing, breathing a sigh of relief.

“Nice job on that flight,” Julius tells him. “You’re gonna love when you get in the airplane. You’re gonna love it.”

Julius (left), beside Julian Bond and other members of the Morehouse College flying club, the Strato Knights. Contributed photo

Aviation is big business in Atlanta, and nobody knows that better than AJC staff writer Kelly Yamanouchi, who’s been covering the industry for the AJC for nine years. That’s how she learned about Aviation Career Enrichment, a unique nonprofit organization that teaches young people how to fly, and its devoted founder, Julius Alexander, a man who achieved his dream of being a pilot despite some challenges. This is a story of how he came to share his passion with others.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor

Kelly Yamanouchi covers the airport and airlines for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she has been a reporter for nine years. Before joining the newspaper, she covered airlines for the Denver Post.

Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.

Julius with Leon Shields, a promising student at ACE who was just one month from getting his private pilot's license when he was killed in a motorcycle accident in August 2017. Leon and his friend Vicki Van Der Hoek were the subjects of an earlier Personal Journey. You can read their story and a remembrance of Leon here.