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Flying high
By Melanie Burney ’84

hese days, Michael J. Fowlkes ’81 is flying high. He is living out his childhood dream in the skies as a DC-8 pilot with United Parcel Service. But becoming a pilot didn’t happen overnight.

Sky-high ambitions
Soon after graduating with a business degree from Rowan in 1981, Fowlkes realized he wanted more than a career as an accountant. “I wanted to see the world,” he said. He decided to become a pilot—something he had dreamed of as a young boy watching planes at the Atlantic City airport.

As an undergraduate, Fowlkes showed that same determination to excel. He was a member of Gamma Tau Sigma Honor Society, president of the Bureau of Greek Organizations and Mr. Black Glassboro State College (1980-81).

From audits to altimeters
In 1984, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, even though he knew flying was among the hardest jobs in the Marines. He also knew that there were few black pilots in the Marines. “If I was going to go for it, let’s go for it all,” he said. “So I went for that.”
On his way to flight school in Pensacola, Fla., Fowlkes made a detour to Tuskegee, Ala., where he met Charles Anderson, whose 40-minute flight with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941 led to the training of the first black military pilots. Anderson, who was the chief flight instructor and mentor of the famed black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, gave Fowlkes a flying lesson in his Cessna. It was an unforgettable experience that motivated Fowlkes even more to beat the odds and become a pilot. “It’s a memory I’ll never forget,” he said. “From then on, I knew I could make it.’’

Fowlkes earned his military wings in January 1987. During the next 11 years, Fowlkes piloted CH-53 helicopters and was deployed to Japan, Korea, the Philippines and the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm. After flying helicopters for five years, Fowlkes moved on to teaching as a fixed wing flight instructor, taking to the skies with students in a two-seater aircraft.

When the military began downsizing in 1994, Fowlkes left the Marines as a captain after accumulating 2,500 flying hours. The following year he joined a U.S. Air Force Special operations reserve squadron to fly C-130 cargo planes.

Cleared for take-off

With his military training, Fowlkes was hired as a pilot by Louisville, Ky.-based UPS in 1996. Currently a second officer (or flight engineer), he is nearly halfway toward his ultimate goal of becoming a captain, which typically takes about seven years to accomplish.

In the cockpit, Fowlkes prepares the aircraft for takeoff, checks the controls and monitors them during flight. He usually works a week, flying the Chicago to Dallas route or the Atlanta to Philadelphia trek and then is off a week.

When time permits, he speaks to schoolchildren about aviation careers and is active with the Organization of Black Airline Pilots and the Chappie James Chapter of Negro Airmen International. He has also co-chaired a week-long summer aviation summit for underprivileged youngsters. He lives in Pensacola with his wife Gloria Koon Fowlkes ’84 and their two children, Jasmine, 11 and Justin, 7.

“When I went to Rowan and majored in accounting I never thought I would end up being a pilot,’’ Fowlkes admitted. “Now that I am, I love it. I’ve flown all over the world—Japan, Singapore, Puerto Rico, Europe, Hawaii, England and Korea. This is a dream,” he added. “People pay to do what I get paid to do.”

from fall ’99

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