Note: Edited for clarity.
Challenge Air is headquartered in Dallas but actually holds events all over the country. According to its website, “Challenge Air builds self-esteem and confidence of children and youth with specials needs, through the experience of flight.” On Fly Day, pilots volunteer their time and four-seat planes to take special needs kids and two members of their families in the air and actually let the kids steer the planes. I have participated twice in McKinney, but they also have Fly Days at Love Field and in Ft. Worth.
This is a really fun, unique, and rewarding volunteer experience. Beyond the usual opportunities, such as setting up and helping with registration, you can help load the families on the planes, cheer for the kids as they take off and land, or even direct airplane traffic on the ground. And if you have a cool pilot, you often get to ride in a tiny, terrifying plane.
Load teams usually consist of about four people. One person is the team lead and gets a special yellow vest and a clipboard, while everyone else gets an orange vest. All of the participants receive a balloon with a number on it. The Civil Air Patrol kids listen to the radios and put Post-its on an easel indicating when your team needs to find its next participant.
While the kids are waiting for their ride, they can eat hamburgers, look at the various booths, and enjoy some entertainment. There are usually clowns making balloon animals and sometimes animals to play with.
When it’s time to take the family out to the plane, you walk them down a red carpet and onto the tarmac as everyone cheers, making sure nobody runs into a propeller, and help them get into the plane and put their headphones on. While they are out flying, you procure their certificate of completion and wing pin, which you present to them on landing. Sometimes they ask you to hold their balloon or take their picture.
It’s really great to see how happy everyone is after the flight. If nothing else, you know they had one really fun day.
I think this experience is almost as rewarding to the volunteers as it is to the participants. Last time, I got to go out on a flight with a couple of other volunteers (a 9-year-old girl and her dad). I had been skydiving, so the tiny plane was not new to me, but I wasn’t quite as afraid since I knew I didn’t have to jump out and actually got to enjoy the view. The girl did a great job steering; actually, I think she did a better job than the pilot. Her dad looked completely amazed, ecstatic, and proud the whole time. One thing I didn’t realize until close to the end was that I’d never actually landed in a plane that small, so that was interesting. And by interesting, I mean terrifying. But kids tend to be a lot braver than adults.