Real fighters / Program gives sick, disabled kids a chance to play pilot at HAFB

Sep 2 2010 - 11:57pm

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(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Lakota Herman, of Orem, tries on full pilot’s gear Thursday during the Make-a-Wish Foundation “Pilot-for-a-Day” program at Hill Air Force Base. Several children with life-threatening illnesses or disabilities, as well as their families, got to try on pilot gear, test a flight simulator and watch an air show.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Lakota Herman, of Orem, checks out a flight simulator during the Make-a-Wish Foundation “Pilot-for-a-Day” program at Hill Air Force Base on Thursday.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Jordan Park relaxes in a  wheelchair as he and family members check out a fighter jet during the Make-a-Wish Foundation “Pilot-for-a-Day” program Thursday at Hill Air Force Base. Several children with life-threatening illnesses and their families got to test a flight simulator and watch an air show.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Matthew Goodworth gives a thumbs up while seeing how heavy a pilot’s helmet can be.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Lakota Herman, of Orem, tries on full pilot’s gear Thursday during the Make-a-Wish Foundation “Pilot-for-a-Day” program at Hill Air Force Base. Several children with life-threatening illnesses or disabilities, as well as their families, got to try on pilot gear, test a flight simulator and watch an air show.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Lakota Herman, of Orem, checks out a flight simulator during the Make-a-Wish Foundation “Pilot-for-a-Day” program at Hill Air Force Base on Thursday.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Jordan Park relaxes in a  wheelchair as he and family members check out a fighter jet during the Make-a-Wish Foundation “Pilot-for-a-Day” program Thursday at Hill Air Force Base. Several children with life-threatening illnesses and their families got to test a flight simulator and watch an air show.
(ERIN HOOLEY/Standard-Examiner) Matthew Goodworth gives a thumbs up while seeing how heavy a pilot’s helmet can be.

HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- Austin Jones spent Thursday living the life of an F-16 Fighter pilot, and for a moment, he and his family were at peace.

The 13-year-old Brigham City resident was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006, and since then, Austin's life has been a little different from that of an average seventh-grader.

"It's been tough on all of us," said Austin's mother, Staci. "When you have a child diagnosed with cancer, the whole family goes through it. It's not just one person, it's everyone involved."

Austin was one of eight Utah Wish Kids from the Make-A-Wish Foundation treated to a tour of the 388th Fighter Wing as part of its "Pilot-for-a-Day" program.

Pilot-for-a-Day is a private program with a charter at Hill Air Force Base. Its primary purpose is supporting children in the local community who have severe illnesses and disabilities and life-threatening medical conditions.

The children spent their day with the 421st Fighter Squadron, flying the F-16 simulator, touring the air crew's flight equipment section and the pilots' locker room, viewing an F-16 static display, and attending an F-16 aerial demonstration.

The day culminated with a ceremony at which the children received a set of pilot wings.

"It's been a pretty fun day," Austin said shortly before heading to the flight simulator.

Austin has undergone several rounds of cancer treatments since his leukemia diagnosis, although he has been a year without treatments and the cancer is in remission.

"It's a terror that you can't really describe," said Staci Jones, talking about the time her son was diagnosed. "I just remember hearing the doctors say 'leukemia' and I went into a haze and didn't hear another word they said."

The cancer treatments left Austin so weak, he was barely able to ride a bike again a little more than a year ago.

Staci Jones said nearly four years of medical procedures can take a toll on a family, and any chance to distance themselves from it for a while will always be welcomed.

"A day like today is a good distraction," she said. "You can come here and, for a few hours, forget about all the stress that we've gone through during the past few years."

Capt. Roberto Flammia, an F-16 pilot at Hill, helped organize the program and said the yearly event is a favorite among those involved from Hill.

"We get as much, if not more, out of this experience as the kids do," he said. "It's one of the most rewarding things that we do."

For more information on the Utah Make-A-Wish Foundation, go to utah.wish.org.

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