The Liberty Gazette
November 13, 2018Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: He walked through the gate looking handsome in full astronaut uniform. I wanted to take his picture, but I knew I should ask permission. It was a good thing I saw him first, because when the media realized he was in the crowded hangar they swarmed for photos.
Max is six, or maybe seven. He was quick to tell me the suit was “fake,” but that didn’t matter to me because the young man in it was as real as sunshine. And oh what sunshine he added to the day!
Challenge Air held its annual flying event at the airport in Conroe the first weekend in November. Challenge Air is where pilots and other volunteers get to make dreams come true for special needs kids, sharing the gift of flight.
Staff and volunteers work hard all year to perfect logistics. Then it all comes down to the moment the first family arrives. Each child is welcomed with enthusiasm as they wander the hangar to see clowns and balloons, play games, and join in face painting. The adults who bring them fill out the paper work which includes weight of all passengers who will be taking the flight and whether this child follows instructions or has uncontrollable outbursts. Total passenger weight figures in to what airplane they’ll be assigned, while the other information helps volunteer pilots know whether the child will be best served riding in the back with their parent or having a seat up front. Either way, a Challenge Air kid becomes a co-pilot, and that’s a big deal.
Parents attend ground school to know what to expect, then the pilot’s loading team leads them out to the airplane. This year, as a lead loader I walked eight families down the red carpet where a cheering crowd lined both sides, blew kazoos, slapped plastic clappy-hands, and whooped and hollered in encouragement. Of course, for noise-sensitive kids we waved our hands in silent applause.
The airport ramp was busy with planes arriving and departing all day and families being escorted to and from their rides.
Once I had a family buckled in to our plane, Mike took over. You’ll get to read his perspective next week.
Flight after flight, ninety-five in all, they took off with their volunteer pilots for a scenic trip over Lake Conroe for about twenty minutes. When they returned, each Challenge Air kid received special recognition from their pilot and we, the loaders, got to escort them back across the red carpet lined with cheering fans. Shouts of “Hooray!” “You did it!” “Great job, co-pilot!” welcomed them back.
Many of our co-pilots were kids with an autism spectrum disorder. Whatever their challenges are, Challenge Air comes every year to provide a unique experience. The rewards for us are priceless. Like when Astronaut Max leapt with every step down the red carpet, high-fiving everyone he could reach. And like one astonished dad overcome with emotion who said, “She never smiles, but look at her now! She’s smiling!”