Catching the Spirit

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It's hot on the ramp. The sun, blocked earlier by a thin overcast, now has an unobstructed view and it's doing its thing with a good deal of enthusiasm. There's a slight breeze and that helps, but the baggage handlers in my group are sweltering as we form a "bucket brigade" to unload bags from yet another Citation on the airport ramp.

It's not often that at the end of the day you can feel you've done something really worthwhile and actually find yourself enjoying the exhaustion that comes from an honest day's work. But I had that experience on two different days in early July. I was a volunteer at the Cessna Citation Airlift in support of the first USA National Games of the Special Olympics held in Ames, Iowa, from July 2-7. This was the fifth Citation Airlift; the first four were in support of the International Summer Games. The idea for the airlift evolved from Cessna's experience at the 1985 International Winter Games when two of its Citations carried the Special Olympics Kansas delegation to Salt Lake City, Utah. Two years later, the Citation Special Olympics Airlift tradition began when Citation operators provided 132 Citations to transport some 1,000 athletes and coaches to South Bend, Indiana, for the International Summer Games.

Subsequent airlifts carried athletes to the International Summer Games in 1991 in St. Paul/Minneapolis, Minnesota (180 Citations); Hartford, Connecticut, in 1995 (197 Citations); Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, in 1999 (275 Citations) and this year to the USA National Games in Ames, Iowa, in July. On July 1, 237 Cessna Citation business jets flew in to the Des Moines International Airport. The airplanes, arriving from some 28 different states from Florida to California, touched down, taxied in and disgorged their passengers. As the athletes got off the aircraft they were greeted enthusiastically by Cessna officials and volunteers. There was lots of hugging and high-fiving as the athletes, many making their first airplane ride, grinned and basked in the attention. Behind the scenes, we baggage handlers unloaded the bags from the cargo holds and placed them in John Deere "Gators" that carried them to the buses that would take the athletes to the dorms at the Ames campus of Iowa State University.

Once the athletes and bags were unloaded, the Citations were towed by an armada of tugs, donated by UPS and wielding tow bars from Tronair, to the fuel pits for topping off before heading off and back to their normal carriage trade. It went like clockwork and nary a bag was lost, although we did hear later that there was a camera left on one of the airplanes by an athlete. The camera was eventually recovered but unfortunately, never re-united with its owner. It was fitting that the first airplane to touch down on the arrival day was Iowa-based Townsend Engineering's Citation X, piloted by Bill Wagner. Wagner and the Citation X made two trips on both July 1 and July 8, spanning the country with pickups and drop offs in North Carolina and California. Ice cream sandwiches, milk and lemonade provided by the Anderson Erickson Dairy and Jim Erickson, a member of the Des Moines airport board, along with "love" cookies, offered sustenance for the volunteers who did yeoman's duty during the 12-hour days.

We baggage handlers pretty quickly learned which Citation models had voracious appetites for bags. On the arrival day the activity rarely slacked as airplanes touched down every 60 to 90 seconds. Unloading the duffel bags-some surprisingly heavy which probably belonged to bowlers and power lifters-wasn't too hard. It was a matter of dragging them out of the baggage compartments and sending them down a bucket brigade of four or five volunteers to the waiting Gator. The arrival day was hot and the concrete ramp was hard on the legs of us older baggage haulers as we had to move between airplanes that were often parked at opposite ends of the ramp. But with all the smiles and hugs making the rounds, it was hard not to catch the spirit.

The athletes compete over the six-day Olympics in 12 different sports: aquatics (swimming), athletics (track and field), basketball, bocce, bowling, golf, gymnastics, power lifting, soccer, softball, tennis and volleyball. The athletes are divided into categories based on gender, age and ability level. According to the Special Olympics officials, the activities all reflect the values, standards, traditions, ceremonies and events embodied in the modern Olympic movement.

On the departure day, the sun was blocked by a persistent overcast that kept the temperature comfortable. Loading the bags was a bit more problematic with the smaller Citations than unloading had been. We learned to appreciate the ample baggage capacity of the Citation XLSes and Xs. Although we baggage hefters weren't quite as efficient on the loading end as we had been on the arrival day, word had gotten out and there were three times the number of volunteers, so the airplanes were loaded and on their way right on schedule.

Marilyn Richwine, the Cessna vice president and "Airlift Queen Bee" who has directed the planning and implementation of all five airlifts, has honed the procedures over the years, and this year's airlift was deemed to be the smoothest ever.

Arguably, Cessna is the only company that could mount an airlift of this size. Over the years the company has produced 19 models of business jets and delivered more than 4,500. Currently, counting the Mustang light jet, Cessna manufactures nine business jet models. The Special Olympics motto, "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt," is admirable, but whether they came in first or last, everyone participating in the Special Olympics-athletes, coaches, pilots and volunteers-was a winner.

Depending on the location and logistics involved, Cessna plans to mount a Cessna Citation Special Olympics Airlift at the next USA National Games. If you fly a Citation, plan to participate. If you can't volunteer an airplane, "catch the spirit" and volunteer yourself. You'll be exhausted at the end of the day, but you'll sleep well for having done something really worthwhile. Thanks Cessna.