Malber Jones, 16, of Chicago barely could contain his excitement. While walking on the tarmac outside Hangar 10 at Palwaukee Community Airport in Wheeling, after going up in a private plane, he felt like he was walking on air. “It was my first time on an airplane,” Jones said excitedly. “We flew all the way to the lake. He let me take the wheel and fly the plane.”
Jones was one of 25 educably mentally handicapped students from Jacqueline Vaughn Occupational High School in Chicago, who spent the day at Palwaukee as part of a project called “Challenge Air.”
The innovative flying experience is the result of a partnership between members of the Federal Aviation Authority, Signature Flight at Palwaukee, and the Young Eagles pilots who donated their time and planes – to teens with special needs.
The concept was founded in 1993 by Navy Lt. Richard Owen Amber, a top gun fighter pilot who lost the use of his legs when his landing system failed while returning from his 109th combat mission over Vietnam. He started the program to utilize the various occupational, recreational and educational opportunities through flight and inspire challenged young people to soar above their perceived limitations.
“I was sitting up front with the pilot,” added Karla Rosales, 16, of Chicago, who added that the only other time she had been on a plane was when she came to this country from El Salvador. “I really liked to see how the plane worked,” Rosales added. “I got to see how the pilot flies the plane, and I watched him push all the buttons. He let me turn off the engines.”
The students who made the trip were all mildly to moderately impaired. They attend the vocational high school to help prepare them for a job in the community. In between flights students saw displays that included models of the most popular airplanes from the last 100 years, they tried their hand on a desktop flight simulator, and they even saw a real NASA space suit, worn by Capt. Jim Lovell and other Apollo 13 astronauts during practice missions.
“We try to expose them to as many new experiences as possible,” said teacher Holly Kroger. “Every new experience helps them grow.”
Students went up with the pilots in pairs or individually for 20-minute spins. They wore headsets that allowed them to listen to the pilots as they received their instructions from the control tower.
“I never had this when I was a kid, I just used to hang around the airports and hope one of the pilots would take me for a ride,” said Mario Ponton of Chicago, who flies out of the Schaumburg Regional Airport. “It just gives me such joy to see the smiles when these kids get off the plane.” “I’ve had a great time in aviation all my life,” added pilot Russell Shavitz of Arlington Heights, who started in model airplanes before flying the real things. “I just hope these kids get bit by the bug.” In all, five pilots participated, bringing their Cessnas, Pipers and Beechcraft Bonanzas with them. Those students that flew with pilot Ken Rapier of Chicago learned about more than aviation, they learned about the Tuskegee Airmen.
Rapier has painted his Piper Warrior to resemble one of the Tuskegee Airmen’s fighter planes, complete with their distinctive logos painted on the nose and back fuselage, and with the name Tuskegee Airmen and Young Eagles printed on the wings.
“We want to pass on the legacy to the younger generation,” Rapier said. “Not just about aviation, but inspire them to do great things.”