I spent the day last Saturday flying – giving kids with disabilities a chance to experience the fun of flying in a small plane. I have been involved with Challenge Air for several years. Based in Texas, Challenge Air was founded by a Vietnam fighter pilot who lost the use of his legs after an aborted landing attempt on an aircraft carrier. He loved flying so much that he figured out how to continue to fly after his accident, and he began to share the experience with children who spend much of their lives being told what they can’t do.
Challenge Air held its first “Fly Day” in the LA area in 2007, and I asked my dad to fly that event. I flew the event myself in 2008, taking up 6 kids and their parents over the course of the day. We skipped 2009, so last weekend was the third LA-area Fly Day.
I picked up my rental plane from Van Nuys Airport and flew over to Whiteman Airport, where the first of the 150+ kids and their families had begun arriving for the day. There was a bit of down time while the organizers matched up volunteer “ground crew” members with pilots and planes, and then matched each team up with kids. So I was sort of hanging around, and a girl came over to where I was standing. She was about the same height as me and was probably a teenager. I’ll call her Nancy. She had a hand-knit wool cap covering what was obviously missing hair, and she had a tube going up her nose, held in place by a bandage on her cheek. The skin below her eyes was red. I asked her if she was waiting for her flight. “No,” she told me, “my sister has cancer. I was diagnosed after we signed her up for this event.”
I was floored.
How is that possible? This teenage girl and her family have been through cancer with her sister, and she was just diagnosed within the last few months.
I asked Nancy if she wanted to go for a flight since she wasn’t signed up to fly on Saturday. She told me she did. I thought for a moment that no one would miss me if I just disappeared with her for a half hour or so, but then I thought about all of the liability issues, and my “ground crew” got her set up with the paperwork. It would require her mom’s signature, since she was only 17, and her mom was already in a plane with her sister. She seemed content to wait for a bit. “I could forge her signature,” she told me. “I’m sure you could, and I’m sure you have,” I laughed with her.
I was assigned another child and I ran over to Nancy and told her not to go up with anyone else. “You are going up with me,” I said.
By the time I got back after my first flight, Nancy was having lunch with her mom and sister. She said she was feeling a little queasy and wanted to wait a bit more. I had my ground crew let her know that if I took someone else up, it would likely be another hour wait. She said that was fine.
We finally went up about 2 in the afternoon. I took up Nancy and her two younger sisters, including the youngest one, who was in remission.
I flew four trips on Saturday. One was with a high-functioning autistic kid – and aside from telling me that his tummy hurt right before takeoff (there’s something you don’t want passengers telling you, but I knew he would forget about it once we took off….!) he carried on an intelligent conversation with me the whole flight. One was with a less-than-high-functioning autistic child, who didn’t talk too much. One was with Mark, and I’m not sure what his disability was, but he didn’t speak at all. He made some interesting noises when we were airborne, and he had AMAZING long eyelashes (which I told him!). All three could communicate with me in their own way that they had fun flying.
Nancy was fairly quiet during our flight. I had joked with her earlier about how she was finishing up her senior year of high school with a bang. I can’t imagine being 17 years old, getting ready to finish high school and expecting to venture out into the world, like most of your friends, and go to college, and being diagnosed with cancer. Maybe it’s because I spend so much time talking with high school seniors as they make their college decisions. They approach the decision about what college to attend and what subject to major in as if it will be the most important decision of their life, and here I was sitting next to a girl who was literally fighting for her life.
The kids and parents always thank me profusely after each flight, and sometimes they e-mail me the pictures they took of their kid with me in the cockpit, or standing by the plane. They don’t realize that pilots will fly anywhere with anyone for any reason, any time. Challenge Air has always been a fun and rewarding experience for me, but this year, I got more than I gave. Nancy’s strength despite her situation will always remind me that it’s not about what you are going through, it’s about the grace with which you handle it.