By Kathy Chouteau
When he was about five years old, Malachi Sanders flew on a 747 airplane to Hawaii, his first-ever flight.
The experience sparked within him a lifelong passion that has culminated in the onetime Richmond resident being hired by Southwest as a pilot, and his launch of an upcoming scholarship aimed at helping others achieve the same dream.
Sanders, who grew up on south 56th Street and later attended El Cerrito High School before moving to Fairfield, is currently enrolled in Southwest Airlines’ Cadet Program in Phoenix. As part of the training program, the 24-year-old is logging in some serious “fly time” before he begins piloting 737s for the airline in June 2026.
Sanders’ trajectory toward earning his wings wasn’t always a straight runway. After that first flight to Hawaii as a young child, Sanders honed his craft growing up in the best way he knew how: by practicing on a computer flight simulator he talked his mom into buying and also by watching YouTube videos to “teach himself how to fly.”
By age 16, Sanders—who said he “hung around with the wrong crowd in Richmond” but “never lost sight of what he wanted to do”—took his first intro flight at a flight school, which strengthened his resolve to become a pilot. A move to Fairfield saw him take his studies more seriously; he graduated from Will C. Wood High School in Vacaville intending to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, but he wasn’t accepted. Although he was disappointed, Sanders said “it pushed him to figure his own path out.”
Eventually, Sanders moved with his family to Las Vegas, where he worked various jobs with the singular goal of financing flight lessons. Although he briefly returned to the Bay Area, even working in customer service at San Francisco Airport for a spell, he quickly realized he needed to return to flight school in Las Vegas and did so. Southwest Airlines introduced its Cadet Program in the summer of 2019, and although COVID-19 delayed his plans, he was eventually accepted into the program and moved to Phoenix in August of this year to get started.
When asked how it feels to have finally achieved his dream of becoming a pilot, Sanders said it sometimes “doesn’t even feel real” and that “it’s literally a dream come true.” He said that now when he puts a uniform on and has little kids saying ‘I want to be like you,’ he tells them he used to be just like them not too long ago.
With these budding future aviators in mind, he plans to launch the “Malachi A. Sanders Scholarship” in the first quarter of 2022 to help support others wanting to become a pilot. While he is still ironing out the specifics, he plans to open the scholarship application up to people age 16 and older from the Bay Area and hopes to have the first place award be $1,000. Sanders will be launching a scholarship website and will announce further details in the near future.
“I wanted to launch a scholarship because I wanted to help other people,” said Saunders about his upcoming scholarship. He said that Richmond and the Bay Area can be “a tough place” and that it’s hard to keep sight of your goals when you’re seeing family and friends get killed around you.” I want to be that light, to say ‘hey, you can do it.’”
And Sander’s advice for others who dream of becoming a pilot? He said that the distractions will be there in life but to “put them to the side.” He said to “just stay motivated, stay focused and believe in yourself.”