Pilot for a Day program leaves lasting impact

  • Published
  • By Eric M. White
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Sixteen years ago, the 910th Airlift Wing hosted its first Pilot for a Day (PFAD) program. Since then, more than 60 children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses have come to Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio for a day of star-treatment in military fashion.

Their day begins at the base recruiting office, where they don a tailored Air Force flight suit, complete with personalized name badge and unit patches. Youngstown’s recruiters always have a bag of Air Force goodies to hand the honoree, the first of many souvenirs they’ll receive during their visit. From there, a representative from our Marine Corps Reserve tenant unit picks up the honoree and his or her family in a Humvee, escorting them to the 910th headquarters building.

Headquarters hosts the most meaningful part of the day, when the base commander commissions the Pilot for a Day as an honorary second lieutenant. The Youngstown Air Reserve Base Community Council, which funds the PFAD program, presents the honoree with a 1/100th scale model C-130H Hercules aircraft, detailed with a Youngstown tail flash and the honoree’s name inscribed above the aircrew door.

After the ceremony, the PFAD and their entourage set out with a pilot escort from the 910th Operations Group for a day of military activities on the station. During their tour, the honoree inspects aircrew parachutes for defects, tries out life support equipment, dons night vision goggles in a dark testing room, eats lunch in the Community Activity Center and fires simulated weapons in the Marine Corps Reserve training area. The capstone of the child’s experience is sitting in the flight engineer’s seat of a C-130H Hercules aircraft while taxiing down the runway.

The PFAD’s time with YARS is fast-paced and packed with activities, but the enjoyment and excitement seem universal with each new honoree.

Maj. Brent Davis, former Public Affairs officer for the 910th, retired In Nov. 2014. He was Youngstown’s pioneer for the PFAD program, carrying the torch for 15 years before handing it off to me. In 2015, I had the privilege of managing the program, gaining a first-hand perspective of just how impactful it is.

Both of our 2015 Pilots for a Day shared the same sentiment about their time here. Twelve-year-olds Celina Dennis and Ethan Hoffman called their experience “the best day ever,” and by their tone, I think they meant it. As much as the honorees and their accompanying family members enjoy their experience here, I think the biggest impact is with our own members. As each new PFAD makes the rounds, their resilience, vibrancy and generally optimistic outlook leaves our Citizen Airmen feeling great about an otherwise normal day.

As an added bonus this year, representatives from three bases contacted me for assistance in starting a PFAD program at their installations. That means the impact is spreading beyond YARS, just as it spread to YARS 16 years ago. It has become a favorite local program for us, with a longstanding record of generating positive media coverage, increasing community awareness and boosting morale for all those involved. It’s a huge reward to turn on the local news in the evening after a PFAD program to see our newest Wing member talking about their experience with the 910th.

If your unit has a Pilot for a Day program, but you’ve never had the opportunity to observe or participate, find out how you can. You won’t regret it. If your unit doesn’t have its own program, I know of several experienced people who would love to see the impact spread. Make some calls and discover how your unit can directly and powerfully impact the lives of young people struggling with life-threatening or chronic illnesses. I guarantee if you host one PFAD program, you’ll realize the impact isn’t just for the honoree. It spreads to the whole unit as members witness how young people in difficult situations embrace the full value of life.