Tampa pilot inspired by Black history heroes in aviation
First Officer Marcus Walton says Black trailblazers in aviation helped pave his path to becoming a pilot.
Like many kids, Marcus Walton loved computer games. But it was one program he discovered that would spark a lifelong fascination with aviation.
“One of my childhood neighbors had Microsoft Flight Simulator on his computer,” remembers Walton. “That’s where my curiosity started.”
On his occasional plane trips as a kid, Marcus says he would gaze out the plane’s windows fascinated by the plane’s wings and engines and the ground far below. When he’d walk up to the front of the plane, he’d always want to peek into the cockpit, but says he never saw pilots who looked like him.
“It wasn’t until 4th grade when I finally met a black pilot who came to speak at my school.”
The pilot who flew for UPS told the class stories of transporting chickens and other cargo around the world.
“He was a very charismatic guy," Walton said. "I was in awe of what his life must have been like.”
Walton grew up the son of a Marine Corps Vietnam Veteran and shared his father’s passion for the Marines. When he got to high school he discovered the story of Lt. Gen. Frank E. Petersen Jr, the first ever Black Marine Corps Aviator.
“At the time, I didn’t even know the Marine Corps had airplanes,” recalls Walton, who says he was fascinated reading Petersen’s story.
“Hearing his trials and tribulations inspired me. It gave me a roadway for me to gain entrance to this industry that is traditionally very hidden to most of the Black community.”
Another highlight came in his African American history class at The Citadel where a guest speaker from the famous Tuskegee Airmen came to speak at his college.
“That was my first time speaking to one of the veterans of that very famous unit,” said Walton. “I will never forget that day to have the experience and to be able to ask them about their challenges especially flying during segregation.
Marcus graduated and became a Marine Aviator before joining Delta Air Lines as a First Officer. It was around that time when he met one of the airline’s iconic figures, Cal Flanigan, a former Delta mechanic who put himself through flight school at a time when few other African Americans were flying. He went on to become Delta’s longest serving pilot and the airline’s first Black chief pilot logging more then 26,000 flight hours over 12.5 million miles.
“In his 45 years at Delta, he never once took a sick day,” said Walton.
Walton said while his parents raised him to realize he could achieve any goal he put his mind to, the inspiration from the Tuskegee Airmen and trailblazers like Lt. General Petersen and Captain Cal Flanigan helped seal the deal.
“It’s very important for young people to see these icons of history to show them the actual journey is very doable and realistic for them.”
He now hopes to serve as a role model to others, especially young Black men and women looking to enter the field of aviation.
“I was in those shoes at one time,” says Walton. “We have to have people within the aviation industry that can show the light to others to follow.”