By JONI M. FISHER
It was a quiet Saturday in late November at Gilbert Field in Winter Haven, Florida, when five Air Force ROTC volunteers showed up to help flight instructor and businessman John Collins make good on his offer for free flights to the families of police and firefighters in Winter Haven.
The idea started weeks earlier after two officers visited the airport to introduce themselves as part of community outreach to counteract the anti-police sentiment building in major cities. That day John took them up for a flight and asked if other officers might be interested in a flight over Winter Haven. These officers notified Public Information Officer Jamie Brown of the Winter Haven Police Department, who sent out word to officers and firefighters.
By 9 a.m. on Nov. 20, six pilots and three more volunteers arrived to coordinate flight times for the families who wanted to take a 30-minute, 30-mile flight over the city of Winter Haven. Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. pilots flew 14 flights.
The aircraft included a twin Comanche, Cherokee 140, a Mooney, a Cessna 182, and an amphibious Cessna 185.
Volunteers checked in the passengers and assigned them to airplanes.
Air Force ROTC cadets from the Central Florida Aerospace Academy in nearby Lakeland, Florida, then escorted the passengers to the conference room for a pre-flight briefing. The children’s questions ranged from “what happens if the engine stops?” to “can I sit up front?”
Student-age children were given information on the James C. Ray Fund scholarship that offers 90% tuition for flight training for students 16 and older who have a minimum GPA of 2.75. For an application and more information, contact the Central Florida Aerospace Academy Foundation at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Passengers were then escorted to their planes and introduced to the pilots.
Three firefighters and three of their children participated in the fun. Police Chief Charlie Bird was among the 12 adults from the Winter Haven Police Department, while 13 children of policemen were also introduced to aviation.
For the majority of the participants this was their first flight in a small plane. After their flights two of the teenagers asked for information on the aviation scholarships.
After all the guest passengers flew, Collins the took the cadets up for flights in his twin Comanche.
Airport Manager Leo Treggi gave the pilots a discount on the fuel in appreciation of their efforts. The pilots were: Flight Instructor John Collins, Flight Instructor Ben Shipps, Chuck Smith, Flight Instructor Steve Alcorn, Roger Olson, and Maury L. Fisher, MD. The Air Force ROTC volunteers from the Central Florida Aerospace Academy were Angelo Aguilar, Christopher Atkins, Nick Riggall, Stephen Ohsiek, and Thang Dang.
Dang took photos of the passengers. Later CDs of the photos were delivered to the Winter Haven Police Department and the Winter Haven Fire Department.
“If everyone’s interested, I think we should do this again next year,” Collins concluded.