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Picture: Neal Loving

Neal Loving, Pilot and Engineer

Question 1: Can you describe your work?

I've had several careers, all associated with the field of aviation. In elementary school, I designed and built model airplanes all through high school. My first job was in 1936. I was 20 and was teaching model aircraft building for the Detroit Department of Recreation. During that time I built 2 gliders, the first was unsuccessful, the second was the one I had my accident in. I flew it for the first time in 1941 and had an accident in that same glider in 1944. I lost both legs in that accident.

I started to learn to fly in 1938 and flew solo the following year. Back then there were microscopic numbers of black pilots. No flight school would take black students. An army pilot taught me to fly because he saw that I was serious about flying - not as a stunt but as a labor of love. Working on airplanes, working with the aviation industry that was all I was interested in.

My aircraft mechanic experience got me a job with the Detroit Board of Education from 1941-43 teaching model aircraft building. I was the first black instructor in an all white school. The Detroit Board of Education was segregated. During the war, the principal was an aircraft instructor who knew me and he pushed to get me the job. Initially, I only taught the boys because you needed welding and mechanics before taking the model course. The girls found out that my class was fun and wanted to join. The authorities didn't want a black man teaching white girls but the principal put his foot down and girls got in my class.

Just before my accident, the war was on and I went to Pratt Whitney at the Ford Company to work on aircraft engines. I had my accident on July 30, 1944 and was out of the hospital on Valentines Day, 1945. It took 3 months to get my artificial legs fitted but when I got them, within 1 month I had my driver's license. Without a goal in mind, there was nothing to point towards and I believe in goals.

When I wanted to get back into flying, people would tell me all kinds of advice about why not to do it. But flying was my life and everyone was telling me I was out of my mind...but I loved it. I started flying again in 1946 and got my license back the following year.

I then started the first black flight school in 1946. I got interested in flying racing planes and started designing the aircraft that eventually became Lovings' Love.

By 1951, I was the first African American to qualify as a racing pilot. I am still the only double amputee - black or white - who is a licensed racing pilot.

I was married in 1955 and wanted a more secure financial future, so I entered engineering school at Wayne State in Detroit. I started learning aeronautical engineering at Wayne State. I was 39 years old and the teacher said I was too old to learn. I told my teacher that the only characteristic not mentioned in my school application was "determination". I graduated in 1961. Determination, that's what got me through! Without that, you don't have much of anything.

After graduation, I moved to an air force base just outside of Dayton, Ohio where I worked as a research aerospace engineer for 20 years. I traveled all over the world; Paris, Australia, Japan, New Zealand...

Question 2: How did you get interested in aeronautics?

I remember a specific event in 1926. I was in the backyard with my brother and the mail plane came overhead. My brother said, "Why don't you get off my back and build airplanes?" I looked up at the plane and thought that looked very interesting. I was 10 years old.

Then on May 20, 1927 Charles Lindbergh flew to Europe. That thrilled everyone and served as an inspiration for me. I never wavered from that interest from that day on.

Question 3: Is learning math important if you want to have a career in aeronautics?

Absolutely. It is part of the basic foundation. Without it you are lost. Basic math skill is fundamental and you can't go forward without it. Even a pilot needs to have math. Math is common to all aspects of aviation. Besides math, the other important thing is communication. People need to be able to communicate about their work. Communication and math.

Question 4: What's easy and what's hard about your job?

Nothing is hard about my work. I love every minute of my work. There is occasional prejudice, but it's like a mosquito when you are trying to eat outside. It's irritating but it never kept me from the things I love.

I believe firmly that enthusiasm about your work is the key to success.

Question 5: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in aeronautics?

Yes! One of the fastest growing areas of transportation is the aviation industry. Every indicator says the aviation industry will continue to grow. The industry is spread out, and it needs to be to cover the globe. The current interest in aviation is making money and at the same time being environmentally efficient. I can see only growth for the aeronautics industry because the developed world needs more and faster transportation.

Students need to know that there is no room in the aviation industry for people without skills. All the jobs will require them.

Question 6: Would you encourage young people to pursue careers in math? Why?

All of these modern technologies require math skills. Especially aviation.

Question 7: Is there anything you would like to say to young people with physical disabilities who are considering a career in aeronautics and/or math?

First of all, 99 percent of the jobs that are available are open to people with physical handicaps. Handicapped people can do these jobs. If you have the skill and the enthusiasm that goes with it, there is nothing to prevent you from succeeding. You can have a computer at home and communicate with your boss with a modem. You don't even have to go out of the house.

These young people with handicaps have the best opportunities in the world. Employers know how responsibly these people work at their jobs. And they do great work. They are responsible and motivated. Their track record is great and employers understand that.

Question 8: What challenges, if any, have you dealt with in your career due to your disability?

None. All the things physically that I wanted to do, I have done. I can jog, drive, the only thing that I can't do is run.

Question 9: Is there anything else you would like to say to young people?

Picture: Neal Loving in His Plane

One of the things that we do as human beings, is we look at the next guy and we say "If only I was like Joe." He has a better car, job, more money. But, if you look behind the facade you find that Joe also has problems.

Everybody has problems. So the bottom line is not whether or not you have a problem, but how you deal with that problem. That's what is important. Success is solving your problems.

I could have sat in a wheelchair and the government would have taken care of me for the rest of my life. I wanted to walk and got wooden legs. My problem is not so obvious, others have problems that are more obvious. The bottom line is how we deal with them. If you can handle your problem you can join the line of successful people just like everyone else.

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