Students from the OU Extended Campus School of Aviation Studies volunteered to help children with disabilities experience flight as part of Challenge Air Day on Saturday, April 27, at Tulsa Riverside Airport.
Members of the OU Flying Sooners, the OU student chapter of the Air Traffic Control Association and the Sooner Chapter of the American Association of Airport Executives assisted at the event. This was the second year that members of School of Aviation Studies student clubs have assisted with Challenge Air Day.
Challenge Air was created in 1993 to eliminate the belief that children with special needs are limited and to give them the opportunity to find courage within themselves through the gift of flight.
The event involved the families of children, many with special needs, who got to fly with one of 14 pilot volunteers. The event included a “Ground School,” where the kids were taught a few basics of flight, in addition to other booths that featured aviation-related activities, including OU’s static Piper Warrior airplane.
“We helped the kids get in and out of the aircraft and allowed them to manipulate the controls and get comfortable with sitting in an aircraft on the ground before going out to fly,” said Aviation Management student Jesse Hudelson. “The kids got red carpet treatment to and from the planes and the pilots and everyone involved was enthusiastic and having fun!”
For Air Traffic Management student Foster Becquet, the most interesting part of the experience was when they were introduced to a child who had been blind since birth.
“We decided to walk him around the plane,” he said, “to give him a sense of what the plane felt like and to paint him an image in his head. Seeing his smile in the cockpit really made me realize why we were here and why these kinds of outreach events can be so important.”
Hudelson said when the kids landed after their plane rides, everyone gathered around the entrance to the hangar where the red carpet was and clapped and cheered them on as they disembarked the aircraft and walked the red carpet back into the hangar.
“Most of these kids have never flown and were afraid to do so before that day,” he said. “I loved helping them overcome their fears, which was indicated by their ear-to-ear smiles as they got out of the plane.”
Professional Pilot student Scott Wardrop said the kids were able to build up confidence through their interactions with OU’s static display and began to look forward to their flights.
“Nothing could beat the smiles on the child’s face and on their family’s faces after they went for the flight,” he said. “Everybody was beaming from ear-to-ear almost the entire time, and it was incredible to see. The event was really heartwarming.”
As the brother of a sister who has autism, Wardrop understands what an event like Challenge Air Day means to the child, the parents and their siblings.
“The most interesting part of the event was seeing each of the children’s needs, and seeing how they overcome them,” he said, “and how their families assist them in overcoming the problem. They truly showcase human spirit and determination in day-to-day life.”
Hudelson said he was grateful to Challenge Air for hosting the event and that he and his colleagues could attend as representatives of OU—so they could both share their passion for aviation, as well as the opportunities for future aviators OU offers through Sooner Flight Academy and the School of Aviation Studies.
“Attending these events is a lot of fun, as well as important for the community and our program,” Becquet said. “Being able to share our passion, especially with special needs and disabled children, leaves a lasting impact on them and ourselves.”