A lesson in generosity: "Pilot for a Day" returns to Altus

  • Published
  • By Kevin Chandler
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
Greg Willis, 97th Air Mobility Wing chief of education, spent the past 17 years working for the Air Force. But today, more than any other time in his career, Mr. Willis truly feels like an Airman thanks to the kindness shown to his sons Xavier and Zachary.

The eight year-old twin brothers were guests of the 58th Airlift Squadron as part of the "Pilot for a Day" program March 20. The program was created by Senior Master Sgt. Brian Williams while he was stationed at Altus AFB. 

Staff Sgt. Chad Turner, the current program coordinator, witnessed the event as a student in 2006 and was in awe at the impact of the program. 

"I was amazed that a technical sergeant could make a kid so happy," Sergeant Turner said.

That is just what "Pilot for a Day" is all about. The program gives critically ill children the opportunity to experience a day in the life of an Air Force pilot. The children wear genuine flight suits, tour aircraft and support agencies, spend time in a flight simulator and receive a set of pilot wings at the end of the day.

"It gives them a good day and some good memories," Sergeant Turner explained.

Those memories are particularly important for families dealing with serious illnesses. Both Xavier and Zachary have Hunter syndrome, a condition described by the Mayo Clinic as a "rare genetic disorder that occurs when an enzyme your body needs is either missing or malfunctioning." The condition also leads to difficulty recovering from normal illnesses and a shortened life expectancy.

All the family's struggles were left behind on this day however. The brothers, their 11-year-old sister Brittney, and parents Angela and Greg enjoyed first-class treatment as they toured several Altus AFB organizations.

Master Sgt. James Hilton, 58th AS, believes it is essential for Airmen to participate in events like the "Pilot for a Day" program. 

"It's important to maintain these programs, even with the high operations tempo," he said.

It was Sergeant Hilton who suggested inviting the Willis' to take part in the event. His wife worked with Angela and knew the family would appreciate taking part in the program.

The brothers arrived at the 58th AS in their flight suits, ready for an exciting day. After Lt. Col. James Cole, 58th AS operations officer, presented the boys with patches for their flight suits the family travelled to the control tower for a tour. The boys received air traffic controller badges and spoke to a pilot flying a training mission. The Willis' then toured the life support facility, rode in fire trucks to a C-17 static display, ate lunch at the club, flew in a simulator, took pictures and received pilot wings.

The day was a memorable one for all who participated. "I think I've got a bigger smile on my face than they do, today has been fun," Sergeant Turner remarked.

Mr. Willis agreed. "We all had a blast, not only my sons, but my wife and I (as well)," he said. 

In addition to the enjoyment, the family was also impressed by the generosity shown to them at every stop by Altus Airmen.

"When someone takes the time and says, 'Hey, we're going to honor your child,' I think it draws tears to the parents' eyes, because of the humanness of what this program is about," Mr. Willis explained. "It just floored me and I'm shocked and surprised what all the agencies went through in order to honor our boys."

"This is the day you love being a commander," said Col. Stuart Shaw, 97th AMW vice commander, as he presented the brothers and Brittney with pilot wings. "This team here, it's first class. There's nobody better."

Sergeant Turner hopes news of the program will generate more interest and participation. "We're planning on having this at least once every three months," he said.