LCC alumna in Aviation Hall of Fame - The Lookout - LCC's Independent Student Newspaper Since 1959
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LCC alumna in Aviation Hall of Fame

alumni spotlight

Chicago resident and LCC alum Luanne Wills-Merrell, shown in this undated photo, was recently inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame as the first Black female aviation safety inspector.  Courtesy photo

Mallory Stiles

By Mallory Stiles
Editor in Chief

It’s hard to say exactly what defines living a good life, but there is a great quote from a great movie called “The Bucket List,” spoken by Morgan Freeman playing Carter Chambers, that pretty much sums it up.

“I believe you measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you …” he said.

Chicago resident and LCC alum Luanne Wills-Merrell, 63, is currently a supervisory aviation safety inspector in the Federal Aviation Administration. A native of Lansing, she has accumulated a multitude of achievements over her lifetime that will forever be remembered.

Most recently, Wills-Merrell was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame as the first Black female ASI in American history. She said she spent every day just doing her best and cannot believe where the journey has taken her.

“It was nothing I ever expected to happen in this life and, even when I was nominated, I was like, ‘me?’” she said, still sounding shocked.

There was an overwhelming wave of support for Wills-Merrell, as people poured in from every corner of the country. 

“It was surreal,” she said. “It was amazing. There is an old song about giving someone their flowers while they are still here and alive to appreciate them; it felt like that. People sent flowers and candy and cake to the house.

“I got phone calls and now have mentors from 40 years ago in my life. It was just amazing, over 70 people came out to support me. The room only held 200 people.”

The mentor she got to reconnect with is named Denis Caravella, a co-inspector in the FAA. He said he remembers meeting Wills-Merrell sometime in the 1980s and noticed her spark immediately.

“It took no small amount of effort to achieve what she has achieved,” Caravella said. “She has always been enthusiastic about everything. It’s that attitude, that perseverance, that wins and overcomes any obstacle.”

Wills-Merrell definitely agrees that it took a lot of perseverance to get where she is today. She said it all started when she took a plane ride with her grandmother and mother.

They were all going to South Carolina to watch her older sister graduate boot camp and she realized she loved to travel, but didn’t want to pay for it. She marked her destination in that moment but saw no clear path.

“I was in an organization, Les Meres et Debutantes of Greater Lansing, and it takes young ladies and their mothers from the seventh grade to the 12th grade,” she said. “They help transition you into being a young lady, and part of that was helping you figure out what you wanted to do with your life.

“So, in the 12th grade, someone finally asked me I wanted to be. I told them a pilot and, once they stopped laughing, ‘cause they’re like ‘yeah right,’ they tried to find a pilot to mentor me.”

Wills-Merrell said the organization started looking at the local rotary club and got lucky.

“They found not only a pilot, but a Black pilot. He took me out to Capital City Airport and, at first, he had me go to the air traffic control tower. I plugged in with a controller and listened to the transmissions between the controller and airplanes.

“After that, he took me to LCC and I signed up to get on the waiting list for flying classes. Two days after my high school graduation I started Private Pilot Ground School at LCC.”

Alumnae aviationLuanne Wills-Merrell learned to fly at LCC, and also taught at the college.  Courtesy photo

LCC quickly became a place where Wills-Merrell spent a lot of time, but the beginning was hard. She said she will never forget what it felt like to be the only Black girl, the youngest and the least familiar with the material.

“When you going to school with people your age, you don’t get it and others don’t get it so you get together and form a study group,” she said. “I didn’t have that support.”

Even though she had twice the work in front of her, Wills-Merrell leaned on her mentor to explain what she didn’t know, and eventually crossed the finish line.

“It was frustrating as all get out but I never thought about quitting,” she said. “After that, I got my private and commercial license at LCC. I got my instrument rating there and then I got my flight instructor license, then my instrument flight instructor license and my multi-engine flight instructor license and I then started teaching at LCC.”

It is no accident that every career choice Wills-Merrell seems to make has a little to do with teaching. She comes from an entire family of educators and said there was nothing her parents treasured more than education.

“My dad went to the library every Saturday until two weeks before he died,” Wills-Merrell said. “He went the day I got married, my mom was so mad! He was an educator from day one. He would always ask why you would buy a book when you could get it for free.”

Her parents were named Clarence and Shirley Wills; they are both commemorated by a play treehouse made by a local artist for children to play and read under.

It is on the bottom floor of the Capital Area District Library on Capital Avenue in Lansing, and has a plaque above it. Wills-Merrell said her mom may not have made as many trips to the library as her dad, but she also deeply loved books.

“She loved education,” Wills-Merrell said. “She wanted to be a librarian but she did what women did back then; supported their husband. She was the homemaker until I was old enough, as the youngest of her three girls, to go to school. That’s when she went to work.”

Wills-Merrell said her mom was a tutor and even is rumored to have tutored Magic Johnson. She said her parents were her greatest influence because time after time she saw them make history.

Clarence was the first Black man in the state of Michigan to run for state legislator, and he won the primary. Shirley actually was a founder of Les Meres et Debutantes of Greater Lansing and was later inducted to the Michigan’s Women’s Hall of Fame for her efforts.

Wills-Merrell said that her mother and eight other mothers founded the organization because systemic racism was keeping their daughters from entering the existing organizations.

“There was a group that did cotillions, but back in the ‘60s, there was still segregation,” she said. “It wasn’t by law in Michigan but the Black girls and the Black mothers couldn’t get into the organization. So the Black mothers decided, you know what, let’s make our own.”

Wills-Merrell continues the fight for Black girls everywhere. She has one simple piece of advice to offer any young girl who doesn’t feel good enough.

“Not only are you good enough, you are better,” she said. “If you don’t believe you are the best, no one else will, so you have to believe you are the best.”

Wills-Merrell may have named her parents as the most influential people in her life, but she said the person who changed her life the most is her son, Christopher Merrell. 

“My most life-changing moment was giving birth to my son,” she said, her voice thick with love.

Christopher said he realizes now just how lucky he is to have Wills-Merrell as a mother and to have grown up so close to the world of aviation.

“My mom has taken me flying dozens of times,” he said.

Christopher said his mom has a heart of gold and, if forced to describe her in one word, would pick “dedicated.”

“That is her whole M.O.,” Christopher said. “Whether to it’s to her friends, her job, parenting; she is in it 100 percent. She will bend over backwards and move heaven and earth for people she may or may not even know that well.”

He also said that while everyone knows his mom as a well-respected, always-professional pilot, he loves her sense of humor. He said his mom knows how to make him laugh better than anyone and pulls the best pranks.

“I remember this one time a buddy of mine was helping me look for some football gear and my mom had convinced him that he had to wear the pads into the store to size them correctly,” he said, chuckling. “Because my mom was always so serious, he just went along with it.”

Family means everything to Wills-Merrell and it shows in every aspect of her life, even her hobbies. While some people prefer to bide their time crocheting, Wills-Merrell chose to dive into her genealogy.

“I have traced my family tree quite a bit and just recently started speaking about it and getting some of it published in books,” she said.

She assisted with the publication of “The Eight” by Albert M. Rosenblatt, and also helped publish “Black Homesteaders of the South” by Bernice Alexander Bennett, outlining her family’s involvement in American history.

Fittingly, it is quite remarkable. “The Eight” talks about a landmark court case.

“My grandmother said her grandfather came up through slavery through the Underground Railroad and I thought that was interesting,” she said. “I tried to find out more about the story of his escape.

“(It turns out) my grandmother’s grandfather didn’t run away, he was freed by a landmark court case. After that, because the owner was going to appeal, he and the other seven slaves got on the Underground Railroad and went to Canada; just in case that decision got reversed.”

“Black Homesteaders of the South” is all about her father’s lineage and also details an amazing come-up story.

“I wrote a whole chapter in that book,” she said. “That’s about my great-great-grandfather on my dad’s side, Verdal Wills. He went from slavery to being a property owner of 120 acres.”

Wills-Merrell continues to lead an incredible life. It seems shaping history is in her blood, but she never forgets what it was like to have no options, and continues to support several organizations that inspire aviation careers in young people.

She is a mother, a pilot, a Hall of Famer, an author, an explorer, a teacher, a friend and a powerful speaker who we should all aim to imitate. May Luanne Wills-Merrell be the person we all measure ourselves against.

“I don’t focus on things that have gone wrong,” she said. “The people who have tried to prevent me from being successful are the people who made me successful.”

Wills-Merrell may have climbed many mountains but, while we are on the subject, she has one thing to add:

“I am not done yet.”



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