About 100 young men and women awaited their turn in the XJet hanger to climb into an airplane and take off for a flight around the area during the Sept. 22 Challenge Air for Kids and Friends …
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About 100 young men and women awaited their turn in the XJet hanger to climb into an airplane and take off for a flight around the area during the Sept. 22 Challenge Air for Kids and Friends “Denver Fly Day” at Centennial Airport.
Jonathan Sais, 10, got the opportunity to take the flight and, after the flight, spend time operating the controls at the flight simulator set up in the hangar.
“It was exciting and it was fun,” Sais said in a quiet, shy voice. “I liked it.”
His mother said he and his twin brother Coleman play flight simulator on their computers all the time. She said it was a big deal for them to get to fly and she was sure they would compare notes about their experiences when they got home.
The opportunity for Sais and the other children to fly was part of a national program called Challenge Air.
Bob Douek was one of the pilots who volunteered to fly Challenge Air.
“This is my second year flying for Challenge Air,” he said. “It is great fun for me and I learn something every time I fly my plane. I really enjoy taking the kids up. Watching the smiles on their faces makes flying them really rewarding for me. I plan to continue to fly as long as I am able.”
He said started flying when he was in high school and he got his pilot's license in 1946 before he got his high school diploma. Today he flies a Cessna 182, which he said is far advanced from the J3 Piper Cub that was the first aircraft he flew.
Centennial Airport is one of the 15 airports that annually host the Challenge Air event that states its purpose is to provide an opportunity for young people with special needs to experience the magic of flight. She said, on the average, the program allows 100 or more children with disabilities to fly at each of the 15 airports.
At Centennial, XJet hosted the event. They opened their hangar to provide a place for those waiting for their turn to fly to sit as well as room for games, activities and a table offering refreshments. A local Lions Club staffed the grill and cooked hamburgers and hot dogs for the lunch for those attending the event.
April Culver, CEO of Challenge Air, said she was always excited to attend a Challenge Air event and to see the smiles on the faces of the disabled children who not only get to take a ride in a light aircraft but get the chance to take the controls.
“These events are only possible because all of the pilots providing the flights volunteer their time and the use of their aircraft for Challenge Air flights,” April Culver, CEO of Challenge Air, said. “A pilot spends an average of about $800 to provide these flights.”
Despite the cost, Culver said pilots are eager to volunteer their time and their airplanes to be part of Challenge Day.
“We had 102 pilots sign up here at Centennial Airport to be part of today's program,” she said. “About 80 of our pilots will probably fly as others can't be part of the program because of a variety of reasons. For example, we had 16 pilots scheduled to fly today but seven of the planes were taken off the list couldn't take part in the program because of mechanically difficulties with the aircraft. It means it will take longer to provide the opportunity to fly for all the children but they are being patient and remain eager to get their turn to fly.”
Challenge Air was founded by Rick Amber in Dallas in 1993. Amber lost the use of his legs in an accident in 1971 when he tried to make a landing on an aircraft carrier, had to eject but his chute got tangled in the antenna of the carrier and he suffered injuries that left him without the use of his legs.
Culver said Amber did all the things necessary to return to the cockpit of aircraft with special hand controls for pilots without the use of their legs.
“He became a wheelchair tennis coach for Special Olympics in 1991 in Texas. On one occasion he when he was teaching kids with spinal bifida to play wheelchair tennis, they found out he was a pilot and they wanted him to take them flying,” Culver said. “He agreed and arranged to take them on a flight,” Culver said. “He did and he said he noticed such a transformation in their confidence and self-esteem when they were up in the sky flying an airplane, so he felt he could use his airplane to help people with challenges to realize they can do anything when you set your mind to it.”
He started Challenge Air, and when he passed away in 1997, friends and family agreed to keep Challenge Air and continue Amber's desire to use flight to assist children with special needs.
Culver said the goal at Challenge Air is to continue Rick Amber's vision by providing the opportunity to take a flight and even get to handle the controls to as many children with special needs as possible.
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