Tuesday, December 15, 2009
A special day for a special kid
Why would any kid want to do that?” That was the social worker’s response to my offer to take any child flying for free—that is, any child who was a patient at the local cancer center for children. She probably thought I had something up my sleeve, some hidden agenda. I did not. I explained to her that, for me at least, when I was flying, all the world’s problems had a tendency to stay on the ground, and I thought that might be valuable to a child suffering from cancer. She reluctantly posted my offer in the waiting area. I expected my phone to ring off the hook, but I didn’t get a single call for months. I suspected the posting was removed from the wall after my departure.
But I was wrong. One day, a call came from a mom named April about her son, Danny, who had always dreamed of flying. Danny, a seven year old, was suffering from a rare form of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer that strikes only 500 people a year. April wanted to know all about my “program.” It was easy to explain. We planned to meet at the coffee shop at my home airport, Ryan Airfield (KRYN), west of Tucson, to go over some details and a briefing before the flight.
The morning of the flight was a clear and crisp Southern Arizona December day. Upon arrival, I was surprised to not only see Mom, Dad and Danny, but also a whole array of family and friends. Over coffee, I explained safety issues and flight procedures; my pretty red and white 1953 Tri-Pacer was parked outside the window. Danny’s doctor had cleared him medically for the flight, and we were set to go. A thorough preflight was a learning experience for all, and had a calming effect on Mom (I think).
Because the Tri-Pacer has only the right front door, I entered the aircraft first, then Mom helped Danny in and assisted with his seat belt. A thick seat cushion helped Danny sit higher in the cabin. We finally taxied out to runway 24 left. Even though the doc had cleared Danny, I was a little nervous about him getting sick or panic-stricken, so I had briefed the tower folks earlier about what I was doing, just in case. What great service they provided that day! The Tri-Pacer lifted effortlessly in the cool air, all 135 horses, and Danny “took off,” with a little help from my two feet and a few fingers.
Danny took the controls and flew like a bird! He did great! A gentle turn to the southwest from runway heading had us facing Kitt Peak, the site of the large telescopes and Baboquivari Mountain, a sacred Native-American peak. Danny helped fly the airplane straight and level, and flew her through gentle turns in both directions. Not completely sure about how he was feeling, I asked him if he wanted to continue or go back. Silly me, there was plenty of 100LL fuel to burn, and my antique rag-winged Piper cruised on! A turn back northeast bound showed us Tucson in the distance, and a lower altitude gave Danny an idea of the speed the little Tri-Pacer lacked.
That day, we made the flight over the Sonoran Desert last for over an hour, and everyone was the better for it. I know I was. That was the end of December 2005, and I’m happy to report that Danny is in full remission and doing great. When I asked April for permission for this story, her reply included this note: “He still talks about flying all the time, the pictures with you are framed in his room. You absolutely have permission to use his story.”
I never got any more calls from the hospital, maybe the social worker did indeed pull down my post—maybe she needs an airplane ride as well, I just don’t know. While I’ve flown more than 100 kids in my years of flying, Danny was the only kid that I flew from that hospital. But that’s okay. Danny is a special kid.
Labels: Columns, Features, Journeys, People and Places, Travel, Pilot Talk, Flight I'll Never Forget