- by David Bryant
On Saturday, about 30 children with special needs or terminal illnesses had exactly that opportunity, thanks to the Flying Vikings and the nonprofit’s eighth annual flight at Skylark Field Airport in Killeen.
“This is only for kids with chronic illnesses or disabilities. That’s the whole program,” said Paul Hansen of Temple, founder and president of Flying Vikings. “What we do is take them up to about 2,000 feet and then let them take the controls. There are two sets of controls, and we are right next to them, so it’s not a danger at all. We just want to have fun with it — a lot of these kids aren’t playing sports— they’re visiting hospitals. So maybe you can’t run the bases, but you can fly an airplane.”
Along with volunteer pilots from Central Texas College’s flight program, who helped sponsor the program and provided the planes, Home Depot donated arts and crafts kits and age/disability-appropriate activities to keep the children occupied while they waited for their turn to fly,
Volunteers painted faces and restaurants Domino’s, Chick-fil-A and Schlotzsky’s donated food, handed out by members of the Harker Heights Lions Club.
The program is free for the kids and their families, Hansen said. The nonprofit relies entirely on donations and volunteers to put kids in the air.
“We have eight pilots out here today and about five planes in the air at a time,” he said.
“We take off from here and fly over Stillhouse Lake towards the Expo Center and come back, so it’s a nice little 25-minute flight for them. The child with a disability is in the front seat and they actually take control of the plane. But you’re sitting only 6 inches from them, so there’s no danger.”
Laura Thomas, whose 7-year-old son Rafe suffers from schizencephaly — a condition where a fetus basically has a stroke in the womb and the brain does not fully develop — said the opportunity was “absolutely amazing” for her son.
“I heard about this on Facebook, on the Fort Hood events page, and thought, ‘What an amazing adventure for my son to go up in a plane,’” she said. “Otherwise, we have a lot of issues because of his chair, moving it and stuff.”
Many of the pilots volunteering their time are leery about handing the controls over to a child, but after their first flight with one of the kids, they tend to look forward to the next time they can participate, said Rick Whitesell, chief flight instructor for Central Texas College.
“At first they’re hesitant about (volunteering), but once they do it, they keep coming back every year asking if they can help,” said Whitesell, who has flown about 20 kids since the program started. “Paul came by about nine years ago and asked if we’d be interested in hosting the location.
“After telling me about the program, I figured this was something the college would definitely be interested in fully participating in.”
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