Challenge Air: Putting special kids in the air

There are few aviation activities more rewarding than taking a child for an airplane ride. Their eyes light up as they break the surly bonds of Earth and their smiles grow exponentially as the flight continues. The flight is even more poignant when the child has special needs.

Those children are the focus of Challenge Air, a not-for-profit organization based in Dallas.

ChallengeAir1Challenge Air was established in 1993 to match up special needs children between the ages of 7 and 21 with volunteer pilots for what is often a positive, life-changing flight for both the child and the pilot.

“We provide flights to kids who exhibit physical, medical, cognitive and behavioral challenges,” said April Culver, executive director.

Challenge Air hosts an average of nine events each year. For those doing the math, that equates to about 30,000 flights for Challenge Air.

In many ways, the flights are very similar to the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles flights. However, the focus of a Challenge Air flight is not necessarily to recruit more pilots, but to give the child a self-esteem boost, and perhaps encourage them to develop an interest in and appreciation for aviation.

Volunteer pilots are recruited from aviation organizations and flying clubs and by word of mouth at host airports. To participate, pilots must have logged at least 250 hours and must supply a copy of a current medical certificate, aircraft insurance, and current pilot licenses.

ChallengeAir3Challenge Air has a a network of approximately 3,500 volunteers nationwide who serve as pilots, ground crew, fundraisers, planning committee members, and support staff to make the fly events happen.

A lot of the work is done before the day of the event, of course. But on the day of the event, the first thing pilots do is attend a pre-flight briefing, which includes a review of the route, weather information, and weight and balance for each aircraft.

Each flight lasts 15 to 20 minutes. The special child sits in the co-pilot’s seat and is referred to as the co-pilot. Challenge Air requires that each pilot and co-pilot be accompanied by a parent or guardian. This is for the safety of the pilot and family, Culver noted.

There are volunteers to escort the children and family members to and from the airplanes. When the children are not flying, there are a myriad of activities, from games and crafts to tours of the airport and an age-appropriate ground school, to keep them busy.

Very often non-aviation civic groups provide support staff and activities for the children, according to Challenge Air officials.

Organizations must apply to host a Challenge Air Fly Event. Applications are available on the Challenge Air website (, along with tips for being approved to host an event. For example, the application notes the host airport must have a control tower, and the organization applying to host the event must show that there is community support in the form of monetary and in-kind donations. It is recommended to allow at least six months to plan a Fly Day. It takes that much time to round up enough money and volunteers — including pilots —to make the Fly Day a success, Culver said.

ChallengeAir2“There are two types of Fly Days — a Phase I and Phase II,” she said. “If a city is hosting a Phase 1 event, eight to 10 pilots are needed to fly a maximum of 50 co-pilots. In a Phase II event, 20 to 25 pilots are required to fly 125 to 150 co-pilots.”

Pilots are provided breakfast and lunch and often the FBOs will offer fuel discounts, Culver said. Pilots also are given a letter from Challenge Air that they can use as a form for a tax deduction.

While all that is great, the reason pilots volunteer is the children. And many say they have just as much fun — if not more — than the children.

“The best part, by far, is the kids actually get to fly the plane,” said Dave Wheeler, an 11,500-hour pilot from the Pacific Northwest who has donated both his flying and organizational skills to the events. “When it clicks for them that when they turn the yoke right, the plane turns right, that’s what it is all about.”

He said it’s also fun to let them talk on the intercom. “When they figure out that they are hearing themselves talk, it will often get very loud,” he said.

Culver echoes Wheeler’s experience, noting, “The best part of working with Challenge Air is when I receive an email from a parent sharing a story about how the gift of flight changed the life of their child. We get amazing stories after each event. The testimonials motivate me every day to do more and do what we do better.”

Many of the testimonials are shared on the organization’s website, including this one from a Texas couple whose son has flown with Challenge Air in the Dallas-Fort Worth area several times: “When he first started, he could not sit up by himself enough to sit in the co-pilot seat. Now, he has flown the plane several times thanks to several wonderful pilots. We cannot begin to express the joy and pride on his face as is loaded on the plane from his wheelchair, flies, and then gets off the plane — all to the cheers of the crowds and numerous devoted volunteers! It brings joy to our hearts and tears to our eyes each time.”

And this one, featured prominently on the organization’s home page: “If you ever question if the effort is worth the emotional drain, it is. Travis,who has Spina Bifida, told us that he’d never imagined freedom like that. Thank you!” Paul and Mia Boyer.

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  1. says

    Great article… my 21 yo son is special needs and is unstumpable regarding WW II aircraft… he loves airplanes and flying. Wish I had known about this years ago…

    Thanks, Andrew

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