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Leading the Way: Dobbins navigator determined to help Air Force’s diversity efforts

Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, an original Tuskegee Airmen, poses with Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a navigator with the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, at a Legacy Flight Academy event.

Brig. Gen. Charles McGee, an original Tuskegee Airmen, poses with Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a navigator with the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, at a Legacy Flight Academy event. Thomas is the wing’s diversity and inclusion project manager and is working on several fronts to encourage minorities and young women to consider a career in the Air Force or Air Force Reserve. (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a navigator with the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, and his daughter, Dominica Thomas, getting some quality time in the sky in 2017.

Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a navigator with the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, and his daughter, Dominica Thomas, getting some quality time in the sky in 2017. Thomas is the wing’s diversity and inclusion project manager and is working on several fronts to encourage minorities and young women to consider a career in the Air Force or Air Force Reserve. (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a navigator with the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, and his daughter, Dominica Thomas, after flying a historic T-28 Trojan Warbird in 2020.

Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a navigator with the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, and his daughter, Dominica Thomas, after flying a historic T-28 Trojan Warbird in 2020. Thomas is the wing’s diversity and inclusion project manager and is working on several fronts to encourage minorities and young women to consider a career in the Air Force or Air Force Reserve. (Courtesy photo)

A group photo of a Legacy Flight Academy's Eyes Above the Horizon event at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama in 2019.

A group photo of a Legacy Flight Academy's Eyes Above the Horizon event at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama in 2019. The group is comprised of various total-force Airmen who volunteered to support the youth in aviation event. (Courtesy photo)

Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a navigator with the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, and his daughter, Dominica Thomas, a Civil Air Patrol cadet, pose for a photo at the Air Force Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2017.

Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a navigator with the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, and his daughter, Dominica Thomas, a Civil Air Patrol cadet, pose for a photo at the Air Force Memorial in Washington D.C. in 2017. Thomas is the wing’s diversity and inclusion project manager and is working on several fronts to encourage minorities and young women to consider a career in the Air Force or Air Force Reserve. (Courtesy photo)

DOBBINS AIR RESERVE BASE, Ga. -- Maj. Kenneth Thomas, a C-130 navigator assigned to the 94th Airlift Wing, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia, and the wing’s diversity and inclusion project manager, is working on several fronts to encourage minorities and young women to consider a career in the Air Force or Air Force Reserve.

Growing up with his grandmother in the Bronx, Thomas didn’t know much about the Air Force, much less being a rated aviator.

He knew his mother was in the Air Force and his uncle was in the Navy, but it wasn’t until he attended an air show with his mother, who worked on the F-15 Eagle, that he began to take an interest in being part of the Air Force.

“My mother would take me to the air shows,” he said. “I was amazed by the airplanes and the Thunderbirds. After that, my interest was drawn to movies and video games that were related to airplanes.”

Thomas eventually enlisted in the Air Force, following his mother and father, who both served.

“I was an electronic warfare technician on the F-16,” he said. “While I was in tech school as an Airman at Keesler Air Force Base (Mississippi), my dad was going through Officer Training School at Maxwell (AFB, Alabama).”

His dad was also enlisted before making the move to attend OTS.

“My commander allowed me to miss a day of training to attend my father’s commissioning ceremony,” Thomas said. “That’s when I gave him his first salute. My father told me ‘these new lieutenants are no smarter than you. You are fully capable of becoming an officer too.’ That was the first time I really believed I could actually become an Air Force officer. I was in Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) three years later.”

Thomas was quick to raise his hand when the 94th was looking for someone to run the diversity and inclusion program a couple of years ago.

“I understand the importance of representation in leadership positions and the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career fields,” he said. “As an enlisted Airman, I felt there was a diverse workforce, but I didn’t see much representation in the officer corps, especially in rated careers. Once I commissioned, I recognized my perception as an Airman was real.”

As a young officer, he saw the opportunity to expose aviation to young people of all backgrounds.

“As a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, I was heavily involved in community service,” he said. “I ran a nonprofit organization and was on multiple committees that addressed the disparity of education for young people. I was in tune with the heartbeat of our underserved youth.”

Thomas also volunteered to be an instructor combat system officer course at Pensacola Naval Air Station, Florida, knowing he could be a role model for upcoming Air Force officers.

“I felt it was an opportunity to have a huge influence on the Air Force’s youngest aviators in training,” he said. “When I went through navigator training, I had good instructors who pushed me to succeed, and I wanted to be that for them.”

Thomas also took part in the Air Force’s first ACE Flight Program (now Aim High Flight Academy), an initiative aimed at combating the growing pilot shortage affecting the Air Force. The initial ACE program was a joint effort between the Air Force and Delaware State University to provide students initial flight training in civilian aircraft and a structured environment that provides exposure and education on military aviation careers.

“I had the honor and privilege of being the assistant director of the first ACE Flight Academy,” he said. “The kids motivated me more than they could imagine. I’m glad I had the support of my leadership to allow me to take part in this impactful TDY to Dover.”

Thomas is also the president of Legacy Flight Academy, a nonprofit organization that conducts character-based youth aviation programs that draw upon the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

All LFA events are free to attendees. LFA’s comprehensive, three-tiered building block approach works in tandem with partner organizations to help minorities and other underserved and underrepresented youth achieve success as aerospace, science, technology, engineering and math professionals, particularly emphasizing military career opportunities.

In July, more than 30 students from across six states simultaneously experienced the joys of flight during LFA’s virtual Legacy Flight Across America.

“During this LFA experience, students learned about the first class of aviation cadets who entered preflight training at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama on July 19, 1941,” Thomas said. “The event, which was broadcast live via social media included on-site interviews and live interactions with students.”

Thomas also leads Legacy Flight Academy’s Eyes Above the Horizon program, a single day flight orientation and STEM-focused program. Eyes Above the Horizon gives young people from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds an opportunity to develop an interest in STEM careers through flights, mentorships and immersion into the rich history of the Air Force. It also draws on the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen to inspire students to consider an Air Force career.

LFA’s programs give flights to hundreds of kids each year and inspire thousands more. LFA volunteers are mostly Airmen looking to make a difference in the communities around them.

To promote rated opportunities in the Air Force to diverse populations, Air Force Recruiting Service stood up Detachment 1 in October 2018. Det. 1 develops innovative programs supporting Total Force (active duty, Guard and Reserve) recruiting efforts and is the tactical execution arm of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s rated diversity improvement initiative. The mission of Det. 1 is to inform, influence and inspire tomorrow’s leaders through innovative outreach opportunities.

Thomas works with Det. 1 on many of its outreach programs.

“I think it’s about time,” Thomas said. “The disparity of minorities in rated careers and the higher ranks is appalling. I feel as though the Air Force is making its actions match its words. The Air Force has said over and over how important efforts like this are and Det. 1 is a step in the right direction.”

Det. 1 runs the Aim High Flight Academy, but Covid-19 made in-person classes impossible.

“Lt. Col. Lindsey Andrew and I came up with the plan to conduct the Aim High Flight Academy virtually,” Thomas said. “She had the great idea to fund the student’s private pilot certificate. Before the students start flying, they have eight virtual mentorship sessions over eight weeks.”

Although Thomas was not exposed to aviation when he was young, he has been able to show his daughter from a young age what it’s like to be an aviator.

“When I started flying in the Air Force my daughter was 8 years old,” he said. “I wanted her to be introduced to flying at a much younger age than I was. At first she just thought it was something cool. As time went on, I exposed her to youth aviation camps and programs. I always shared my stories of flying but never pushed her too hard. I just kept her around airplanes.”

At a Legacy Flight Academy event, Thomas’s daughter heard about the Civil Air Patrol. A week later, she told him she wanted to join CAP.

“She went to the first meeting and really enjoyed it,” he said. “She said she felt a little uneasy because she was the only minority. When she told me this, I told her I wouldn’t force her to stay, but she would be missing a great opportunity if she let that stop her.”

She stuck with CAP and earned promotions at every opportunity.

“CAP nominated her for the ACE program, which she attended and completed her solo flight,” Thomas said. “When she moved to her new squadron in Marietta, Georgia, she became the Civil Air Patrol commander because of her leadership and hard work.”

Thomas said he believes exposing his daughter to aviation early will definitely give her a leg up if she decides to pursue a career in aviation.

“She wants to be a fighter pilot in the Air Force,” he said. “She is better set up than I could have ever been. She is a senior in high school and is finishing up her private pilot license. She got into aviation early and is surrounded by great mentors who will ensure her success.”