Haywood, one of the youngest people ever to pilot a round-trip international flight (from California to Vancouver, B.C.), is among hundreds of kids who have reached new heights thanks to pilot Robin Petgrave, 42, and his Aviation Explorers program. The nonprofit—funded solely by Petgrave's helicopter shuttle business-gets at-risk kids off Compton's crime-ridden streets with aviation lessons and academic tutoring. Students pay for lessons by washing planes and cleaning up graffiti in the neighborhood. "Kids look at flying as reaching the top," says local school district official Reena Singh. "Robin makes them feel they can achieve anything."
Born in an impoverished area of Jamaica, Petgrave became interested in flying at 13, after moving to Belmont, Mass., with his mother. "I would go to the airport and watch planes," he says. He took lessons in his 20s and became a movie stunt pilot (Broken Arrow and Eraser) before starting his business. Inspiration for Aviation Explorers struck in 1998, when he landed a chopper on a Compton playground for a career-day event. "It so rocked the kids," he says, "I thought to myself, 'There's got to be a way for me to make a company whose business is helping people.' "
Help them he has. Jimmy Haywood's father, Joseph, says Petgrave, who lives in Harbor City with his wife, Myra, is like a second dad. "My objective was to get Jimmy out of the trouble," says Haywood. "It worked. It really worked."