Early on a summer Friday in Compton, at a time when morning rush hour traffic is at its height during most people’s commutes, activist/pilot Robin Petgrave is 600 feet in the air, buzzing along in a helicopter at 140 miles per hour. From that angle, the city is awash in grid-like patterns of architecture and asphalt, perfectly lit by the sun just breaking through the marine layer.
“When you’re in a helicopter, traffic looks beautiful! You really understand the layout of the city from this perspective,” exclaims Petgrave. “Even if you fly over the same neighborhood, the same route every day, there’s always something poignant and interesting. L.A. is just tremendously beautiful.”
An accomplished helicopter pilot and internationally recognized young entrepreneur, Petgrave is also the proprietor of Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum (TAM), an evolving exhibit of flying gear and Tuskegee Airmen memorabilia, as well as a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) enrichment program for kids. Students can come after school starting as young as eight years old, to do homework and find a mentor. Good grades and chores completed around the building earn points for flying lessons on the adjoining tarmac of Compton/Woodley Airport.
“The museum is many things to many people,” explains Petgrave. "It’s a place where people can achieve success or give back; your life can be jumpstarted. I make an investment in them so they can get a job. It’s not just educating people about the history of aviation, it’s changing the perception of an entire community."
So far, the program boasts eight kids that have set 15 aviation world records - not to mention 16-year-old Isaiah Cooper, who took off from TAM in July 2016 and became the youngest African American pilot to fly across the continental U.S. Cooper later set his sights on the world, setting up a crowdfunding page to fund a solo trip around the globe.
Petgrave had to rely on his own audacity for success. “I was born in a really poor part of Jamaica,” he explains. “When I got to America, I saved my lunch money to take the buses where ever they would go. I would sit at Logan Airport in Boston and watch the airplanes take off, the pilots looking sharp. I thought that was the coolest thing!”
Yet, it was his first sighting of a helicopter taking off and landing that determined his path in life. When he came out to California after college, he cracked the phone books and found a flight school. Within a year, Petgrave was teaching others how to fly - within three years, he started his own helicopter company with just $300. The resulting multi-million dollar business got him featured on Oprah, recognized by Bill Clinton, and hired by celebrities for quick trips and music videos. With the proceeds from its sale, he founded Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum. He still operates Celebrity Helicopters, a similar helicopter sightseeing tour service housed in the same hangar compound as TAM, with proceeds going to the museum’s programs.
Thanks to an ace helicopter pilot, Compton/Woodley Airport is home to a new generation of leaders. It's a stone’s throw from the childhood homes of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube; Venus and Serena Williams trained to become champions on the tennis courts at the end of the runway. “Compton chose me,” Petgrave demurs. “It’s the neighborhood where the kids can have the most access to me. It’s kind of cool that it’s my job to change somebody’s direction in life. A lot of people go to work to make money, but I get to go to work and make a difference.”