Member Profile: Capt. Mike Ponce

The people. It is by the people that you can often feel the heartbeat of an organization. The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) undoubtedly embodies this sentiment. 

It is present in our programs, such as Aerospace Professionals in Schools, Aerospace Career Education, Luke Weathers Flight Academy, and many others, made possible by the due diligence of our organizational leaders, members, and partners. 

It is the hard work of our volunteers. It is our leadership's direction from the top of the list to the bottom and every person they interact in between. It is growth in motion, and this month, we had the privilege to interview Mr. Michael “Mike” Ponce, who is one of many examples of who OBAP is. In my interview with Mike, two words resonated over and over again. 

Intentionality and Humility. This leads me to Mike's message on an OBAP t-shirt that speaks loudly to his journey. Let’s delve into Michael’s journey, which aligns with OBAP's organization mission eloquently and passionately, and how those words describe this remarkable human being. 

Get Your Dream: An Interview with Michael Ponce - Captain at Delta Air Lines  

Mr. Ponce, let’s start from the beginning of your story and how it carried you on the journey to becoming a Captain at Delta?

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, I remember being intrigued by the beauty of aviation from an early age. Not able to travel myself, I spent hours watching planes fly over my home near N. Conduit Blvd. as they approached runway 13L at JFK. It was a simplistic way of seeing the field. I was captivated and realized quickly that watching from the ground wouldn’t be good enough, so I went to the internet and started looking for aviation camps near me. Without access to anyone who could mentor me, or even share a similar interest, I took it upon myself to jumpstart my journey and used every resource I could get my hands on to bring me closer to my dream..

It took me only a short time to realize that pursuing an aviation career was expensive, and if I wanted to reach the next goal I had for myself, I would need help. So, with the help of my sixth-grade teacher, Kevin Coyne, I quickly learned that something worth wanting is worth working for. 

Together, we created a plan. First, I wrote an essay to show why I wanted to attend this camp in North Dakota. Mr. Coyne and I shared this essay with everyone we could. Friends, family, his co-workers, and former teachers of mine, and together we were able to raise nearly all the funds to participate in the camp.

I realize now that my sixth-grade teacher was mentoring me in understanding the effort required to get the things we want. But even more importantly, there are people who will walk and work alongside us to help us reach our goals. That has stayed with me throughout my journey and is something that OBAP embodies at every level of the organization. It’s what made me want to give back.

So we go to an aviation camp and realize that aviation is expensive but also that life is accurate and that we often must make sacrifices to meet our goals. What’s the next part of your journey? 

In today’s society, we talk about the negative impact of the internet, and I think anyone reading this can probably feel that, like many things, it can have negative and positive influences. However, for a young minority trying to find a way to get into the air, asking Google about relative resources allowed me to make a plan and find out about what was available to me. And that’s exactly what I did. To set myself apart from others, I got my private pilot’s license, investing all of the money I could set aside into learning to fly. 

Another item that we often glance over is the cost of what it means to follow our dreams. From the age of 11, I knew that I had to work hard to reach my goal. In my younger years, my mother and I worked just to be able to live, and that often made me not want to overextend myself financially. But as I look back on all the training, time, and investments made in this career, I know that I did everything I could - even to the point of using loans - to make my dreams come true. I think that’s important for any aspiring pilot to know:  sometimes it is going to take debt to get to your dream. And in that process, do not allow that to become a deterrent. Use resources, understand obligations, and move forward in your process.”

Taking Steps 

So, even during my training,  my dreams seemed out of reach. But, I knew that there was a way that I could keep it close. I look back now and chuckle, knowing that my next resource would be a Flight Attendant job posting for Colgan Air on Craigslist; yes, Craigslist!  I hadn’t even graduated HS  when I went for the initial interview. I may have even cut school (shhh) but I took a chance, fearlessly, and put my best foot forward. After multiple interviews (more than other candidates because I looked very young) I was awarded a training date. Two days after graduating HS I was off to Flight Attendant training. After two years of working for Colgan Air, I transitioned to JetBlue where I flew for 7 years. During that time, I completed college, and graduated with a degree in Mathematics & Finance. 

I took a slight detory after graduation and worked as an Analyst in both the Financial Services and Aviation industries, but continued to work as a part-time flight attendant on the weekends. As time passed, it became more and more clear to me that I was meant to be in the air.

After a couple of placed circumstances, in February 2016, I packed up all my belongings and left New York. My mom, who was battling stage four cancer, supported me along the journey and told me to ‘go’. So I headed to Fort Lauderdale, Florida to become a pilot. For five months, I “lived and breathed” aviation.  After a stint as an instructor, I headed to Las Vegas in 2017. 

So, we took a journey to see where the passion and dedication came from; now, we fast-forward to see when and where OBAP came in. Tell me a bit about that journey.

Through a fellow aviator, it was brought to my attention that the ACE Academy in Las Vegas needed volunteers to help with their summer program. Since I loved everything about aviation and, at this time, I was where I wanted to be, I also knew this was my opportunity to give back. 

There’s a quote I’ve heard that says, “A person cannot be what they cannot see,” and in under-represented populations, we can quickly forget to help those seeking too. OBAP does not allow that to be the answer, and they focus so much on making sure youth, especially those in underrepresented groups, can see what they can be. 

So I began to volunteer with OBAP and began making genuine connections, which, unbeknownst to me, would later serve as another resource not just for me,  but for others who I would serve. I was going to be able to help make a difference and continue to give back to a community that had given to me. Understanding that just like myself, “many others may only have the minimum, but with the right support and resources, you can reach the maximum.”  

It was through the support at OBAP that I was able to apply for an A320 Scholarship and complete training at Airbus during the height of COVID when no one knew the future of our industry. OBAP helped me set myself up for success by adding a feather to my cap during a time that held many unknowns.

Though I didn’t fly the Airbus after completing my type rating, having the experience allowed me to build confidence that I would later tap into when preparing to upgrade to Captain at Delta Air Lines. Volunteering at OBAP also put extraordinary people in my path at the right time and it’s with the guidance of those individuals that I stand where I am today. People like Geoff Berry, Randal Rochon, Cedric Davis, and Anya Kearns were instrumental in my advancement. I owe them a huge THANK YOU!

Before upgrading at Delta at the beginning of 2024, I was confident to know that I had seen every part of the puzzle to be placed, and when the opportunity arose, I made the transition to the left seat, relying on my experience as an aviator, as a leader, as a scholarship recipient, and as someone who was intentional of every step along the way. No one was going to tell me that I was not qualified (WE ARE AND ALWAYS WILL BE) so I grabbed my t-shirt, carried it with me every day of training, and went to get my dream!

Knowing this interview will reach current members and hopefully spark the talk for future members, what are some things you want to ensure everyone knows about what OBAP does?

From the moment I became part of OBAP, I realized that the organization is full of people willing to impact, mentor, teach, and embrace who I am truly and completely. We must continue to be champions for one another and uplift each other. Anyone’s success takes a village, and that is what OBAP is; our village and our family. 

Growing up in Brooklyn and being raised by a single mother taught me to be strong and hyper-independent, but OBAP taught me that it’s okay to ask for help even when I thought I had it all figured out. There is no way that I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for the resources and connections I found along the way, so please remember to reach back and continue to live by OBAP’s mission and powerfully inspire others who seek guidance or are following in our footsteps. 

Go and GET YOUR DREAM but always remember to help someone reach theirs. 

Mike Ponce served as OBAP’s Scholarship Program Assistant Director in 2021, and the Scholarship Program Director from January 2022 through March 2024. He was the OBAP Airbus A320 Type Rating Scholarship Recipient in 2020.