Pilots & Special Needs Young People Fly with Challenge Air
Fort Lauderdale-Fla.—Challenge Air, an organization that helps “build self-esteem and confidence in youth with special needs through the experience of flight” recently held an event at the Executive Airport in Fort Lauderdale with Education Update on site.
April Culver, Executive Director of Challenge Air, explained that the event was made possible by the South Florida community including rotary clubs, airports and other companies. Challenge Air holds events throughout the year around the U.S.
To be able to galvanize the community takes strong leadership. Ms. Culver’s vocation in nurturing handicapped children and fundraising are the keys to success. She has worked with children with special needs, including the Special Olympics, for 30 years in Texas.
The purpose of Challenge Air, according to Ms. Culver, is “to provide therapeutic aviation.” It gives kids the opportunity to do something that they never thought they would be able to do. The organization’s unofficial motto is “The Sky’s the Limit.” Volunteers teach kids that not only can they fly a plane but that there are other employment opportunities in aviation, such as airplane mechanic or air traffic controller. Participants range in age from 7 to 29 years old and must have a learning or physical disability.
According to volunteer Susan Randell, children can take a parent or sibling on the plane with them. She added that the participants’ and their families’ excitement is palpable. Up to three participants can go on the plane ride and have an opportunity to become co-pilots. The pilot will teach them how to turn left, right, go up and down.
Before taking off, participants and their friends and families hang out in the hangar where they can see the airplanes taxi toward the runway. They can also have their faces painted while munching on hamburgers and hotdogs.
Some parents have remarked that their kids have been in therapy for years, have barely spoken and will now get on a plane and say: “Hey I can fly.” The exciting and empowering experience gives the kids something to look forward to every year. It serves as a powerful motivational tool. While awaiting their turn to fly, participants can attend ground school in the hangar.
Volunteer Art Randell explains that there are 35 planes, with 35 volunteer pilots on the field. The planes are all privately owned and the pilots are donating both their aircraft and their time. Randell estimates about 125 participants are here on this day. Each person is pre-screened and if the volunteers believe the participant will panic when taking control of the airplane, they will not sit in the front. Randell, a seasoned pilot whose favorite plane is the skyhawk, has been licensed since 1970 and attended flight school with John Travolta.
Other participants included a group of Civil Air Patrol cadets, in uniform, led by Major Edward Villalba. Thirty-year veteran pilot Evan Piper has helped at Challenge Air for several years despite a severe plane accident that left him a paraplegic. His love of planes began at the age of sixteen. He is now a part-time instructor who still enjoys flying for recreational reasons. The challenges for Mr. Piper include getting out of the plane due to his disability. Piper says, “I need special controls on the plane that would accommodate me not to use foot pedals.”
Pilot Michael Bercun is honored that he can make a difference in a child’s life because he has the opportunity to inform kids about his area of expertise. Bercun has been volunteering for Challenge Air for five years and exclaims that it’s essential to give back to the community. Mr. Bercun says, “teaching kids with special needs has been one of the greatest experiences in my life; I look forward to it because it’s so rewarding and it chokes me up every time I talk about it.”
The positive impact is worth the effort of so many people and organizations that are committed to helping humanity. Challenge Air ‘s motto, “The Sky’s the Limit,” truly exemplifies teamwork, support, and compassion for children with special needs. Their love for children has allowed kids and their families to remain optimistic despite life’s trials and tribulations.#