On the wings of our hearts: one brave child becomes a 113th pilot for a day

  • Published
  • By Tech Sgt. Tyrell Heaton
  • 113 Wing, DC ANG
Elijah Davis has never been in the cockpit of jet. He's never commanded any aircraft, and he's never even donned a flight suit. But on April 22 at Andrews Air Force Base, the 7-year-old brain tumor survivor became a 'Pilot for a Day.'

The 113th Wing, led by the 201st Airlift Squadron and in cooperation with several base agencies, literally rolled out the red carpet for the Davis' family, giving Elijah an up-close view of his passion.

"Elijah had a brain tumor and has had two major surgeries," said his mother, Telicia Davis. "He likes video games and would like to be a pilot when he grows up."

The semi-annual Pilot for a Day event focuses on children who have serious or chronic conditions that have robbed them of some natural childhood joy. Each visitor receives a welcome presentation; they take the pilot oath, and are invited to experience the F-16 flight simulator.

"We led him through the flight simulator, showed him the cockpit displays and functions, and let him run the controls on his own," said Lt. Col. Christopher Hardgrave, Assistant Director of Operations 121st FS.

"His favorite part was doing loops and going super-sonic."

After the flight simulator Elijah and his family were given an up close tour of a real F-16 on the Andrews flight line.

"These children have their own challenges and are heroes to us," said Lt. Col Rob Balzano, 201 AS pilot and co-coordinator of the Pilot for a Day program.

"This isn't just PR fodder but long lasting, they're not just a pilot for a day but they remain 'pilots for a day' and are invited back for events such as the Joint Services Air Show ... their host pilot sends them birthday cards and holiday cards and stays in touch with them and their family."

By the end of the day, Elijah and his family had also eaten lunch aboard a C-40C (courtesy of the 201st AS flight attendants and the 459th Air Refueling Wing boom operations), were served dessert (provided by the 99th AS flight attendants) and they even got a taxi ride on a C-38.

The original Pilot for a Day program began in Dec. 1994, organized by Capt. Rory "Ox" Blackburn at Randolph AFB, Tex. The concept has since spread to several bases across the country.

The 201 AS started the Pilot for a Day program for the D.C. National Guard and Andrews Air Force Base Sept. 2005. Since that time they have hosted 12 Pilots for a Day; one child in the spring and one child in the fall are sponsored as the Pilot for a Day. The children are provided by Fisher House and they also provide gifts for the Pilots for a Day.

Even if a Pilot for a Day passes away their family still remains a part of the community. Of the 12 children that have been Pilots for a Day 3 have passed due to their illness. To help commemorate all of the Pilots for a Day the 113 CES completed a Hero Hall at the 201 AS April 20 where each child has their own collage.

The Air Force, Air Reserve, Navy, Andrews Air Force Base Fire Hall and Federal Aviation Administration join the DC National Guard in hosting this program.

"By having so many sponsors their experience is so much better," said Maj Schulz. "A lot of organizations want to be a part [of this program]."