Black-owned aviation store in St. Paul soars to new heights

As a pilot for United Airlines, Donnie Gardner has traveled the world.

Now with his store in the historic Hamm Building in downtown St. Paul, he is trying to motivate others to do the same.

"I want them to be inspired to travel but if they are interested in a career in aerospace, I want them to be inspired to do that too," said Gardner.

Gardner started DGPilot nearly 10 years ago, selling model airplanes online like the ones his dad loved to put together when Gardner was growing up.

But when air travel came to a standstill during the pandemic, Gardner decided to expand his business to become a travel lifestyle shop.

"Minnesota has a large aviation community which I think dates back to Northwest Airlines and the history of aviation here with Northwest. So it's been great," said Gardner.

In addition to model airplanes, DGPilot sells travel bags and guides, aviation-themed clothes, and Minnesota-made products.

The store also has items based on the Tuskegee Airmen for Black History Month.

"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for the sacrifices and the courage and bravery they displayed as aviators and the first African American aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces," said Gardner.

Just 2 percent of commercial pilots are African American, so Gardner helps run a week-long camp to expose BIPOC teens to careers in aviation and aerospace.

He hopes between that and DGPilot, he can encourage the next generation of black pilots to follow in his footsteps.

"I'm really hoping if that next youth walks into the store, that their eyes light up and they see that I can do that too," said Gardner.