A couple of years ago while working on a program through our church to take special needs children up for an airplane ride, I encountered one such boy. This young man was about 12 at the time and suffered from Autism. He was sharp as a tack as I asked him to help me with the preflight checklist. “Why is that [pitot] tube bent like that? Why does it only have three wheels?” and several “What’s this?” questions were fielded as his mind was racing. After the passenger briefing, he read off my engine start and pre-taxi checklists and we made our way out. He was genuinely intrigued with the whole process so far. He assured me he was “ok” each time I stopped to ask. I asked him to hold his arms on his chest during the takeoff until I said it was ok and he did exactly that. Once full power was applied, his face lit up with the biggest smile I’d seen in a very long time. I let him follow me through on control input once we were well clear of controlled airspace, and then let him fly with me just following him. That smile never faded throughout the flight. This young man will not likely ever be able to earn his pilot’s license, but the amount of confidence he gained by actually flying an airplane is incredible. For the record, it’s hard to fly when you cry. When my eyes dried up, I had him take us back to the airport where I then assumed full control through landing. He steered us back to the hangar with a straighter taxi than I can manage. While I flew that boy for his gain and his happiness, I believe it was me who got more benefit from the flight.
I’ve since flown dozens of special needs children. I’ve flown Pilots N Paws missions, and I’ve flown with Sky Kids and Young Eagles. Looking at my logbook, these volunteer flights are the most fun and the most memorable. I ask that if you’re not already flying charitable flights that you seriously consider it. We have been blessed so much with the ability and means to fly. Sharing it with others means more than you can imagine to them. Selfishly, these flights are personally rewarding. They also force you to be a better pilot by requiring you to take your time, focus on the details, and make the passenger the priority. Think about your plane and your skills to see where you may best fit in. Not every plane owner is willing to throw a husky in the backseat, and not every pilot will be comfortable with a special needs passenger. That’s ok – find the mission that’s right for your skills, comfort, and aircraft. There are dozens of organizations who can use your help. Do a quick Google search to find ones right for you.