Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum: Lifting kids’ eyes to the sky
Robin Petgrave, founder and executive director of Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum, is one of the most influential pilots in America
Robin Petgrave does his pre-flight check before flying off to Downtown Los Angeles for an aerial photo shoot. Photo by Ural Garrett
Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum at Compton Woodley Airport eyes past to build a technologically advanced future
By URAL GARRETT, Contributing Writer
COMPTON — News of 16-year-old Compton native Isaiah Cooper becoming the youngest African-American pilot to fly solo around the continental U.S. last summer went viral and became the against-all-odds story that eventually becomes a Hollywood blockbuster.
At the center of the accomplishment was none other than Robin Petgrave, founder and executive director of Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum (TAM) located inside the Compton Woodley Airport. Despite becoming one of the most influential pilots in America, he’s also spent nearly two decades ushering kids within the local community to the aviation industry.
“A lot of kids have no idea,” said Petgrave. “There are all of these opportunities available for them, but they just don’t know about it. We expose kids to all of the possibilities of all the cool things they can do.”
Getting just 10 minutes with Petgrave was a difficult task. Makes sense considering the day he had. When he wasn’t flying out aerial photographers all around Los Angeles, Ebony’s 2013 Power 100 honoree was also preparing for their seventh annual Youth Air Fair the following day. Considered a local staple by the community, attendees could enjoy everything from helicopter rides to booths offering information on various aspects of the aerospace industry.
The Youth Air Fair should also serve as attendees’ first glimpse into the new ongoing renovations which Petgrave hopes can make TAM compete with some of the best aerospace museums around the nation.
“We’ve been here for about 17 years and my goal was to get this space into a position where other people would understand and believe in what we’re doing and start financially supporting it,” explained Petgrave. “Now, we’ve made some headway along those lines and we’ve made some changes to get things I envisioned from the get-go.”
Within the walls of TAM, these improvements include aesthetic facelifts, model aircraft additions, and even large monitor displays for presentations. That doesn’t even include the updates to Compton Woodley.
“We got a lot of equipment and for example, a kid who graduated from our program and wanted to cook,” said Petgrave. “So, we helped him get through the Cordon Bleu and now we’re making a mobile restaurant for him out of a DC-3 airplane like a food truck. That extends to the upgraded patio area.”
According to Petgrave, the establishment will be a family sit-down restaurant within the city limits for those seeking quality dining.
However, the most significant addition to TAM comes through a collaboration with Tuskegee Airmen Chairman Chauncey E. Spencer II. The organization will use Compton Woodley for the second year in a row for a program where 15 students from 15 different states join 15 students from Los Angeles County for education and real hands on experience in aviation but assisting with exhibits as well.
For Spencer II, it’s about fulfilling purpose and legacy.
His father was the late pioneer Chauncey Spencer, Sr. who along with several other African-American aviators, convinced Congress to include Blacks into the Army Air Corps Civilian Pilot Training Program. Following that landmark achievement, Spencer Sr. flew to various Historically Black Colleges and Universities to recruit young Black men and women into the aviation industry.
“There’s a lot of more work to be done because it’s a well-kept secret in our own communities,” said Spencer II. “We have opportunities in Compton where you look at the media who only want to give the negatives but they don’t talk about the positive news. There’s more positive news in our community than negative.”
With the new changes and upgrades, Petgrave says this is only the beginning as the museum sets its sights on the future.
“Right now we’re interviewing Tuskegee Airmen and getting their life stories because we’re going to have holograms that’ll be depicting the Tuskegee Airmen,” said Petgrave. “We’ll have interactive displays that’ll work with your mobile device. We have a lot of stuff going on and moving parts.
“By the end of the summer, this place is going to be transformed. Instead of being Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum, it’ll be the most technologically advanced museum where you can see holograms and a lot of cool features,” Petgrave added. “We even will have drones that’ll teach kids to fly. We’re having technology installed where drones can serve as a guide for the museum which is unheard of. We’re finding the most advanced way to tell the history of diversity in aviation.”
Telling the long and unique story of the Black fight for equality within the aviation industry should inspire more stories like the one of Cooper. Until then, Petgrave will continue to use his platform as a new gateway of interest for those wanting to soar both literally and figuratively.
“Use us,” urged Petgrave. “We’re here as a tool for the community and for people to use. We want people to come down and use this as much as possible.”