Airwork: Catching the Spirit

The Cessna Citation Special Olympics Airlift inspires athletes and volunteers alike.

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Volunteers prepare for the arrival of the
Special Olympics USA athletes.

If business jets could qualify as angels, the Cessna Citations participating in the Cessna Citation Special Olympics Airlift would have earned their wings.

On July 17, 2010, an armada of Citation business jets carrying some 800 Special Olympics athletes and coaches winged their way from airports all across the country to Lincoln Municipal Airport (KLNK) in Lincoln, Nebraska, where the Special Olympics USA National Games were held July 18-23.

The original idea for the airlift, which has arguably become the largest in peacetime, was conceived by Russ Meyer, who was Cessna's CEO and chairman when, in 1985, he arranged for Cessna to transport the Special Olympics Kansas delegation in two Citations to the International Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

For the International Summer Games in South Bend, Indiana, in 1987, Cessna organized the first Citation Special Olympics Airlift and invited owners and operators of its Citation business jets to volunteer them to transport athletes and coaches to the games. A total of 132 Citation jets carried nearly 1,000 athletes and coaches to South Bend.

Following that successful inaugural airlift to South Bend, Cessna has organized airlifts every four years (with the exception of the year the games were held in Ireland). Subsequent airlifts were conducted to St. Paul/Minneapolis in 1991 (180 Citations, 1,400 athletes and coaches); Hartford, Connecticut, in 1995 (197 Citations, 1,600 athletes and coaches); Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, in 1999 (260 Citations, 2,200 athletes and coaches); Des Moines, Iowa, in 2006 (237 Citations, 1,800 athletes and coaches); and this year to Lincoln.

Once again I marveled at the incredible effort and superb organization. The first "Dove" flight, the designation given to Citations participating in the airlift, was scheduled to arrive at 7:30 a.m. and the last, Dove 176, at 4:30 p.m. At 4:29 Dove 176 was on the ground taxiing in to the dispersal site. (There was one Dove flight from Santa Monica, California, Dove 173, that wasn't able to participate at the last minute. Cessna dispatched a Citation X to retrieve the athletes, and it landed later in the evening.) Rhonda Fullerton, her staff and a core group of Cessna volunteers worked the logistics magic.

The airlift in Lincoln was the fourth one for which I've been able to volunteer. There were some 300 volunteers, many from Cessna and Duncan Aviation, which was the local host. I worked with Dick Koenig, Flying's publisher, who has earned his spurs by volunteering at all six of the airlifts, and a small group of "baggage handlers" including General Aviation Manufacturers Association's Pete Bunce and NBAA's Ed Bolen (when they weren't pulling "greeter" duty). We prided ourselves on working efficiently to unload the baggage from each of the Citations as they were marshaled into one of nine lanes. We transferred the bags — some holding bowling balls, weights and other implements of the 13 events the athletes would compete in during the weeklong games — to John Deere Gators that carried the bags to the buses that would transport the athletes to the University of Nebraska, where they would stay and where the competitions were held.

While the baggage handlers were offloading the bags from the airplanes, "greeters" including Jack Pelton, Cessna's chairman, president and CEO, and his wife, Rose, and Roger Whyte, Cessna's executive vice president of sales and marketing, and his wife, Ingrid, were applauding the athletes and welcoming them to Lincoln and the games.

It was hot on the ramp. Outdoor thermometers on buildings in Lincoln reported temperatures in triple digits. At brief moments when the flow of airplanes subsided, we baggage handlers would line up in the narrow strip of shade thrown by a light pole. As the sun moved around the sky, the "birds on a wire" moved with it. To our relief, several Gators circulated among the volunteers with their cargo beds filled with bottles of water and Gatorade embedded in ice, and the drivers reminded us frequently to hydrate. Sunblock decorated our exposed skin.

The efficiency with which the baggage detail operated, with a "bucket brigade" to pass the bags from airplane to Gator — we didn't lose a single bag — was only a small example of the planning and scheduling that has gone into the airlift.

Just think about the logistical nightmare of calculating the range and speed specifications of 176 business jets and scheduling their arrival and departure times so that there would be a constant flow of airplanes landing, taxiing in, unloading, refueling and departing. Credit has to go to Cessna's organizers — and the Citation operators — for making the airplanes run on time.

Although I consider that all the pilots who participated are celebrities in their own right, Harrison Ford, AOPA's Craig Fuller, Jerry Gregorie from Redbird Simulators and Julie Filucci, manager of Cessna Pilot Centers, were recognized by the crowds when they stepped down from the airplanes in which they flew. Literally every pilot to whom I expressed my appreciation for their participation insisted that they were the ones who were appreciative of being able to participate.

When I told a friend about the weekend and how impressed I was by the mechanics of the airlift, he surprised me by asking, "Didn't it make you sad to see all those people who can't live normal lives?"

It never occurred to me to feel sad, nor would it have occurred to him if he'd been there. It was an inspiration! The excitement and enthusiasm with which the athletes climbed down the airstair doors — and in some cases jumped down — and the exuberance with which they high-fived the greeters welcoming them to Lincoln was uplifting. A line on the Special Olympics website (specialolympics.org) describes the spirit behind the organization: "Special Olympics is humanity's greatest classroom, where lessons of ability, acceptance and inclusion are taught on the fields of competition by our greatest teachers — the athletes." I couldn't have said it better.

On July 24, the airlift worked in reverse as Citations gathered to return the athletes to their home bases. The major differences were the even wider smiles on the faces of the athletes and the pride with which they wore their medals.

The Special Olympics traces its inception back to June 1962, when Eunice Kennedy Shriver started Camp Shriver, a summer day camp for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. She held the camp at her home in Maryland to explore the capabilities of the children and adults in a variety of sports and physical activities.

In 1967, Anne Burke, a young physical education teacher and later a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court, began organizing a citywide track meet in Chicago modeled after the Olympics. Working with Shriver, the program expanded to include more sports and more athletes. Six years after its conception, Shriver's day camp turned into a global movement with the first International Special Olympics Games on July 20, 1968, at Chicago's Soldier Field. More than 1,000 athletes from Canada and 26 U.S. states participated. Today, Special Olympics provides year-round sports training and athletic competition in a variety of Olympic-type sports for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

The Special Olympics athlete oath is worth considering by all of us: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt." That's the spirit!