Self-confidence is often the first casualty when a serious illness strikes a child or their family. Flight1 is a groundbreaking nonprofit that helps children in those difficult circumstances gain or rebuild confidence by placing them somewhere unexpected: the pilot’s seat!
“Wait a minute,” people ask. “Children flying planes? Is that possible?”
It’s more than possible. Since the inaugural in July 2012, some 28 children afflicted with or affected by serious illnesses have taken wing as participants in Flight1’s Courageous Flier program. The youngsters don’t just ride in a Cessna 172; they fly it under the watchful eye of a Certified Flight Instructor.
Founder Marcus Strawhorn is the father of two young sons and has flown for more than twenty years. His inspiration for Flight1 came through a traumatic experience: a mistaken diagnosis for which the prediction was two to ten years of life.
“All I could think,” Marcus recalls, “was ‘how will I provide fifteen-plus years of fatherhood in the time I have left? And if I can’t, what do I want to leave behind for my boys?’”
The answer was self-confidence, the same life-changing kind Marcus found at age 15 when his father taught him to fly. “I still remember the moment I first took the controls of a plane,” he says. “Becoming a pilot was a turning point in my life. The self-confidence I gained was immeasurable and I still carry it with me today.”
From the misdiagnosis scare came a determination to make a difference. Marcus wanted to help children build self-confidence and feel the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes with being recognized as part of the aviation community. After forging partnerships with Indy Jet at Indianapolis Regional Airport and the Aviation Tech Center at Vincennes University, Marcus launched Flight1 with a staff of dedicated volunteers.
The first step for children is usually a simulator session. The Courageous Flier learns about working with an instructor, gets the feel of the controls, and earns a set of Flight1 wings to recognize his or her entry into the program.
The staff then schedules the child for a flight. After meeting the pilot, taking part in the weather briefing, and helping preflight the Skyhawk, it’s time to fly! The kids are excited by the aerial view and love to point out familiar landmarks like their home, school, or a parent’s workplace.
Then comes the moment: the Courageous Flier takes the controls. Suddenly it becomes clear to them what is possible and what they are capable of doing. It is an amazingly powerful moment in a child’s life when a hesitant “Can I?” becomes a confident “I can!”
The child signs the logbook after landing and receives a certificate recognizing his or her accomplishment.
Because building or rebuilding confidence isn’t easy, the flight is just the beginning of a three-year program. Courageous Fliers continue to develop their self-assurance through activities that introduce them to the history, science, and technology of flight. The focus is always on one-to-one interaction and the ongoing events create a fun sense of anticipation for the kids.
But can confidence and encouragement really change a child’s life? Susan Kilrain came of age in a much different era and told the following anecdote in a 1997 interview: “All the women in my life were nurses, hairdressers, or secretaries, and that’s why I thought my father would not support me in being a pilot. I can remember asking him, ‘What would you think if I told you I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up?’ expecting him to say no or disagree. He said, ‘I think that would be fantastic.’ Had he not said those words, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”
What happened to Susan was that she ended up flying Navy jets and piloting the shuttle Columbia on two trips into space.
Time will tell whether any of our Courageous Fliers grow up to be pilots or make it into orbit. But it’s not hard to imagine one earning a set of coveted wings and standing at a lectern someday telling an excited young audience, “I still remember the moment I first took the controls of a plane.”
View photos from Flight1 in our gallery here.
Flight1 works with children ages 5 to 18 who are afflicted with or affected by serious illness. There is no charge to participating families and no restrictions based on social background, employment or income. Flight1 is a 501(c)(3) public charity that meets costs through fundraising efforts, sponsorships, and contributions of money, time, and/or services. The organization has earned the GuideStar Exchange Seal and uses 100% of contributions toward program expenses. The Board and all staff members are volunteers. Opportunities are available at flight1.org/volunteers.
In our Flying Matters series, we focus on the great work being done by aviation-related non-profits and charitable organizations. To help contribute to our series with your organization, please contact us at email@example.com.