The Liberty Gazette
October 1, 2013Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: The strapping young Texan could flash a degree from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and tell stories of his 109 combat missions over Vietnam by the age of 26, but not 110. The next mission would have to wait – 22+ years – and then the enemy wouldn’t be North Vietnamese, it would be the limitations of disabilities, physical and developmental.
Challenge Air for Kids and Friends was born out of the goal that "every disabled person should see the world from a different view…out of their wheelchairs and in the sky," and it was Rick Amber’s 109th combat mission that opened the door for his mission.
Rick, a Navy fighter pilot and training officer, crashed his jet during a landing attempt on the aircraft carrier, the USS Hancock, going instantly from Navy pilot jock to paraplegic. To pull one’s self up by bootstraps on legs that don’t walk takes a determination beyond what most of us know.
Aiming high and wheeling through his changed life, Rick earned more degrees from UT and SMU and began teaching math and science in Dallas.
Mike: The pivotal moment came when he was asked to design a curriculum for an aviation class. From that request came the drive to return to the air, this time flying an airplane equipped with hand controls. Refusing to accept the boundaries of the wheelchair, Rick proved to the FAA that he could fly an airplane, and earned not just a pilot license, but a commercial license and a certified flight instructor certificate as well.
Drawing on his experience teaching wheeled kids to play tennis (his own championship tennis title yet another strong credential) Rick invited some children to the Addison airport and took them flying. What he witnessed was a change in attitude toward their own disability, and that change, the effect of flight, led the way for Challenge Air.
Modifying a Cessna Cardinal with hand controls to operate the brake and rudder pedals, Rick set Challenge Air on course to becoming a nonprofit organization. And then, the flying began. Special needs children at community events nationwide would be taken up in the air for the experience of a lifetime.
In 1997, just four years after that first group of kids took turns flying in the modified Cessna over the Dallas skyline, Rick passed away with cancer. Today his legacy lives on through a nationwide network of 3,500 volunteers: board, staff, volunteers and thousands of pilots who continue the mission of building self-esteem and confidence in children with special needs.
When parents report that their child now sees beyond their perceived limitations – as one special flyer said, "I can fly a plane!" – Challenge Air’s mission is confirmed, reflecting the life-changing impact the flight experience has on children, families, donors, sponsors and communities as a whole.
Again this year, Challenge Air for Kids and Friends will spark enthusiasm and fill hearts with encouragement as volunteer pilots and Challenge Air kids meet for Fly Day at the Conroe Airport on October 19. If you’d like to volunteer in any capacity, call 214-351-3353,
or go online to www.ChallengeAir.com. We’d love to see you there.
Thanks, Rick Amber, for the vision. You rose from your wheelchair to lift others up.