Karon Chambers is a 25-year-old African American pilot from Trenton, New Jersey. A local star in his own right, Chambers makes up less than 3.9% of the nation's pilots who identify as Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During an interview with founder and editor-in-chief of Trenton Journal, Kenneth Miles, Chambers, a proud member of Alpha Phi Alpha, talks to us about his motivations and influences on the aviation industry and why he takes his hometown Trenton wherever he goes.
Walk me through your childhood growing up in Trenton.
I grew up on South Logan Avenue on the East side of Trenton. I went to Hedgepeth-Williams all the way through to eighth grade, then transferred to high school. After high school, I did one year at Felician College, now known as Felician University. Then I went to William Patterson, where I got my criminal justice and sociology degree.
What was your childhood like?
Oh, I was definitely outside. That was our generation; we were always outside, 24/7, after school. And, of course, it was filled with studying and doing homework, making sure my schooling was intact, before having fun. Thanks to my parents, that discipline was instilled in me. It was filled with sports. I did golf, track, football, you name it. I also went to project Smile Gear Up.
What is Smile Gear Up for people who may not know?
[It's] a program for the inner city kids of Trenton that runs on weekends and during the summer to prep kids for college. They put you in a college environment, and we went to Mercer County College, downtown James Carney campus. Basically, every Saturday and Sunday morning, we went there from 8 to 3 for an extra day of learning where we prep for SATs and college applications. And it got us in tune with what to expect next because a lot of people don't know what to do after high school. So that program really opened our eyes to college, and opportunity for everybody to make it in life.
Now, your story is not like everyone's story, right? You could have gone down another path. Do you think being in extracurricular activities and having a strong family foundation contributed to your success?
Definitely. You always had to keep a certain GPA playing sports, so having that responsibility made [me] care about grades to play the next match. [Sports] were motivating and instilled discipline in me academically. Outside of extracurricular activities there was a lot of support from, you know, other mentors that I had in my life.
When did you realize you wanted to become a pilot? When was the moment you realized you wanted to fly?
Oh, I was jumping off the bed at probably like five or six. That was my original plan to be a pilot. I wanted to go to Delaware State University or Purdue and study aviation. But the price of tuition going out of state is much more expensive. And you know that growing up in the city, you have a lot of distractions. I kept saying I could go another route, but I didn't really allow myself to propel in that realm. So I chose Plan B; I would be a state trooper or inner city trained cop. That was my plan B.
So, what was the first step toward becoming a pilot?
So [the plan] was to get a good salary job and save money on the side to support me as well as my schooling. I went to an airport to train with the Infinity Flight Crew. I did a discovery flight for like an hour, got the basics of making turns and learning what it took to be a pilot. They explained that a lot of studying comes with it and a lot of sacrifices. So my first step was taking that Discovery flight at Mercer Airport where you go out with your pilot instructor for the first time. It took me a year to get my private pilot license.
What does that training entail?
It took 40 hours of flying with an instructor. I had to learn the science behind flying and what type of regulations I must abide by being a private pilot. It took a lot of sacrifices to take time out from when I could have gone out and had fun with my friends, but instead I chose to work a double in order to pay off a bill or something like that and then go fly again.
How many hours do you need to get your commercial license?
I need roughly 1,500 hours and I'm at 300 hours right now. So I have a little ways to go. I'm just accumulating hours with a flight instructor. I get one certification and keep going; I'm also instructing to earn hours.
How much is the training to become a pilot?
All in all takes about $90,000, but with the right method of maybe going to college first and getting your associates in aviation management may cut the cost of tuition in half.
Karon Chambers credits his strong family ties for his success. Pictured from Left to right, mom, Patsy Chambers, Karon (center), and father (Jerome Chambers).
How do you feel when you are up in the air?
It's a sense of nostalgia; it's peaceful. There's a sense of responsibility that comes along with it too. So it's a little bit stressful at times, but, you know, as a pilot, you prepare for every situation that could possibly happen. That's what goes behind the science of flying and safety. You're responsible for carrying passengers and operating million-dollar machinery. It's sometimes just indescribable….
Trenton gets a bad rap sometimes. We don't often hear stories like yours. How has Trenton helped you become the man you are today?
Oh, I feel like I'm carrying the team on my back! Like, that's my main support. When things get hard, I remind myself that sometimes it's bigger than me and I thank God. I believe there are kids out there who, you know, think flying is cool or think being at the airport is fun…. and sometimes, when you feel weak, you have to think beyond yourself. Yeah, I love my city. It sometimes comes with a bad rap, but at the end of the day, you know, it's about who you hang around. If you hang around bad, that's going to be your result. If you want better, go chase it….go get it. I found better in my own city. So I don't really believe Trenton is bad.
Who were your mentors? I know you mentioned you played sports. Anyone in particular who helped to guide you?
Well, first, my father, he was one of my biggest coaches and my mother. Outside of my family household I would say there's a number of them… definitely Greg Grant. Seeing a celebrity come back to the high school and coach with us was so great. Grant was definitely a motivator.
What does the aviation industry look like? Do you see a lot of people who look like you?
Not at all.
How does that make you feel? I'm sure there are a number of things you carry around with you, but you also carry your race and representation as a Black man in this industry.
I could name about five people I worked with who were Black and in the aviation industry and it was kind of like that in college. I mean, it wasn't too many people from Trenton that went to William Patterson University, and that was an adjustment— like okay, I'm the only one here and, you know, and sometimes it's just going to be that way. But it doesn't mean that I'm not supposed to be here. It doesn't mean I'm not capable of being here. You sometimes have to switch that negative into a positive and use it as a motivator.
What do you want people to know about you reading this article?
It's going to sound cliche, but I want people to know it really doesn't matter where you started. If you have something you desire or want, start by writing it down and pairing it with prayer and action because, with prayer, you got to pair action with it too… God will take care of you. Just don’t quit… and don't be afraid to reach out for help.
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