By Jim Trusty
The future of aviation must be the kids, since we have already asked every adult we know four or five times. I am glad we are giving priority to the various youth programs, so it excites me when someone is innovative enough to find yet another way to give a ride to the future pilots and passengers of aviation. The Challenge Air organization has done just that.
I spent a day recently with Challenge Air, a Dallas, Texas, based firm that specializes in giving mentally and physically challenged and seriously ill children of all ages a chance to see the world from a different view—out of the window of a small airplane. This program was founded by Rick Amber in 1993. He lost the use of his legs after his airplane crashed onto an aircraft carrier while returning from a combat mission over Vietnam in 1971. His dedication to aviation and to children never stopped as he progressed through life as a teacher, a pilot, and a flight instructor. Rick Amber passed away in 1997, but his dream lives on.
As a veteran of almost every kid’s program in aviation, I was interested in learning more about Challenge Air. Along with the pilots who donate their time and airplanes, volunteers and sponsors from each local area donate building space, advertising, tee shirts, food, drinks, tables, chairs, and everything else that it takes to put together a program of free Saturday flying for kids of all ages. It sounded to me like the same thing we do for the Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles Program, the Boys and Girls Clubs, the Explorer Scouts, the Rotary Club, Civil Air Patrol Cadets, and several other groups. The difference is that all the Challenge Air kids are physically and mentally challenged children and most will never fly an airplane themselves, although it is certainly not an impossible feat for the disabled to fly. International Wheelchair Aviators (IWA) has over 200 pilots on their roster. But for the most part, it is a way to let them know that almost nothing is impossible if it is something they truly want to accomplish.
Challenge Air is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is funded by individuals, foundations, service organizations, social agencies, and corporations. The kids pay absolutely nothing for the experience and the workers are strictly voluntary. Challenge Air is affiliated with the Experimental Aircraft Association and the International Federation of Flying Rotarians. They offer many other programs aimed directly at kids.
To date, Challenge Air has hosted over 18,500 kids in events held in 21 states and Montreal, Canada. The states include Oregon, California, Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia, Missouri, Arkansas, Rhode Island, New York, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, South Carolina, Ohio, and Tennessee.
The average age of the riders is 11, but no specific age for becoming a passenger is ever written in stone. It has always been my feeling when participating with the kid-oriented programs that everyone that shows up, no matter the age or the reason, gets a ride. In fact, we make sure at the end of a long fun day to give everyone an airplane ride that helped us with the program. This includes all the workers, the CAP Cadets, and even the local Shriner Clowns who entertain the kids between flights.
To help you decide whether this is something you would like to be part of, here are some other important facts. Challenge Air is not bound by any geographical area but rather by its resources and imagination. Planning a Challenge Air event is a rewarding experience for any group, club, organization, or individual. However, as we found out personally, it does take a lot of time, effort, and planning to make a Challenge Air fly day a safe and successful event. The mission of Challenge Air is to provide motivational, inspirational, occupational, recreational, and educational therapies through the freedom of flight that challenge children and youth with this aviation experience.
It seems that the only difference between an inferiority complex and a superiority complex is how you feel about yourself. There is only one real disability, and that is having negative thoughts about yourself as an individual and what you can accomplish in your life. This program works on that notion, and it was reflected in the face of every kid we saw that day.
A successful event depends on coordination between the Challenge Air staff, local coordinators where the event is to be held, available airplanes and pilots, and Air Traffic Control personnel. The key ingredient is the pilot and the airplane, without which Challenge Air would be unable to provide this great opportunity to children.
In order to spend the day as a Challenge Air pilot, there are certain requirements that must be met (for those of you that participate in EAA programs, you are already aware of these rules): You must have at least 200 hours of Pilot in Command time, a current pilot's certificate, a current medical certificate, a current flight review, and be Part 91 current for carrying passengers. In other words, you must be legal as a pilot according to the Federal Aviation Regulations. In addition, Challenge Air must have the date of your aircraft's last annual and documentation of aviation insurance coverage.
All participants are provided with a due diligence form by Challenge Air to be filled out and returned to them in time to allow for review and approval. If you are a member of the EAA, additional insurance can be placed on your airplane free of charge. You can never have too much protection at this type of event.
Before each event, one local pilot is designated as a briefing coordinator. They are the one to make contacts and meet with Air Traffic Control personnel at least two weeks in advance of the fly day. At this meeting, routes, altitude, and frequencies to be used are decided and suspended transponder codes discussed to help expedite event traffic and to help ease ATC workload on that day. On the big day, volunteers gather at least an hour earlier than start-up time and have the final ground crew, pilot, and safety personnel briefing. Everything discussed so far is passed on at this time along with all available airport information such as taxiways, local NOTAMS, and anything that will help in the smoothness of the day's event for those who may or may not be familiar with the operation of the particular airport.
A few more words on the tax status of Challenge Air. It is a legally incorporated "Charitable Organization," Code 501(c)(3). As a charitable organization, any gifts of cash, property, and any out-of-pocket expenses you incur in performing volunteer work for the organization are tax deductible annually on your federal income tax form according to current Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rules and regulations. Check with your CPA or firm accountant for further information. Such expenses include, but are not limited to, un-reimbursed expenses for parking, tolls, and personal vehicle driving cost of twelve cents a mile or the actual cost of gas and oil. Challenge Air must authenticate any single gift/expense of more than $250.00.
Flying a Challenge Air event is a fulfilling and spirit lifting adventure for the volunteers, and most assuredly the passengers. After all the hard work and coordination, the smiles from the kids and their hugs and kisses are worth any amount of effort put forth to make the event happen. The "thank you" letters from the kids and their parents, the requests from the volunteers to do it again next year and make it bigger next time, and knowing down deep that some of the kids actually received a totally new outlook on life is a reward within itself and probably enough for most of us.
I am proud to have been a small part of the organizing staff and a pilot for the kids on this day for seven years now, which is exactly how long we have done the program in Tennessee, and would really like to see it offered in more areas, maybe in conjunction with some other aviation event you already have in place. I hope that you get to see this charitable organization in action. It is something very special and worthwhile. Take part in it if given the opportunity.
If all of this seems like something a full-time Corporate Pilot/“Gold Seal” Flight & Ground Instructor/FAA Aviation Safety Counselor/National Aviation Magazine Writer would not have much interest in nor time for, you're absolutely wrong! The future of aviation is most definitely the kids, and any organization that proves itself to be on the up and up needs to be promoted by one and all. I spend a great deal of time each and every year with the various alphabet groups doing whatever I can to see that their programs are successful. I personally applaud the folks at Challenge Air and hope they will consider doing additional programs in our area for years to come. I certainly want to be a part of it, and can guarantee that all my aviation friends want to participate again as well. The kids are important, but just as important are those who try to help them selflessly. It's a chore that few do well. Challenge Air does one great job.
Are you thinking that this just might fill some need you have to do something for our young people? A great way to advertise your firm or product? An entertaining medium for getting some interest going in aviation in your own local area or airport? At least give Challenge Air a call and see if they can fit your schedule and fill your needs. To contact them, visit challengeair.com or email email@example.com. Or, you can call 214-351-3353 or write to Challenge Air, Love Field North Concourse, 8008 Cedar Springs Road, N106-LB24, Dallas, Texas 75235.
You can certainly e-mail me at Lrn2fly@bellsouth.net and I will tell you how they worked with us in Tennessee and the positive results that we’ve had with the kids and their families on event day. Any questions, please write or call one of us. Don’t pass up the opportunity to work with this innovative group that is filling a special niche in aviation. They need our support, as do the kids.
I’ll see you at the airport! Always remember, if you really want to learn something, teach it to someone else!
Jim Trusty was the FAA/Aviation Industry National Flight Instructor of the Year (1997), and the Southern Region FAA Aviation Safety Counselor of the year (1995 & 2005). He works full-time as an FAA Aviation Safety Counselor/Corporate Pilot/“Gold Seal” Flight & Ground Instructor/National Aviation Magazine Writer at MQY in Tennessee. You have been reading his work since 1973 in over 165 publications worldwide. He welcomes your comments. You can reach him at Lrn2Fly@bellsouth.net