JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. --
If the proverb is true that laughter is the best medicine, then perhaps a smile could go a long way for a child with a serious or chronic condition.
For McChord’s Pilot for a Day program, the hope is to spread a smile across the face of a participating child for the full day they are part of the McChord Field family as an honorary pilot.
With a motto stating, “A special day for our special kids,” the McChord Field Air Force Association (AFA) is in charge of the program and is responsible for funding and child nominations.
February 20, 10-year-old McKay Neel became the newest honorary pilot in the 4th Airlift Squadron as he, his family and his friends received a tour of a variety of places to experience what it is like on base.
Robert Branscom, AFA Chapter 334 Pilot for a Day chairman and McKay’s father’s colleague, thought it might be an enjoyable experience for one of the Neel children.
“We have four children with special needs and had never been offered such a wonderful experience for one of our children,” said Stephen Neel, McKay’s father. “We could not say no to such an amazing gift of time and effort.”
McKay, his parents and a few friends received a base tour to include a military working dog demonstration, a fire truck ride and spraying the hose, visiting the control tower, receiving survival, evasion, resistance and escape (SERE) training that included a parachute simulation, a C-17 Globemaster III tour and a seat at the controls of a C-17 simulator.
“It has been outstanding,” said Capt. Nick Cooley, 4th Airlift Squadron (AS) C-17 Globemaster III pilot who McKay shadowed during his tour. “He is just a happy child and of course that helps a ton. I think every stop from the canine unit to the tower to the simulators has been a blast for him. It’s been great.”
For McKay, nothing could beat getting behind the wheel of a C-17 and pilot one for himself.
“My favorite part of the tour was the flight simulator,” he said. “I especially liked flying around Mt. Rainier.”
The Pilot for a Day program provides a unique and in-depth experience for families who may not have had much experience or know much about military life.
“I think it's a great way to do community outreach and educate [the community] about the Air Force,” said Jennifer Neel, McKay’s mother. “I know I have a tendency to think of military bases and those working and living there as kind of exclusive, keeping to themselves without much interaction with the surrounding areas, but that is not accurate at all and a program like this is such a positive way to bridge the gap with local communities.”
When it comes to Air Force personnel interacting with the children participating in Pilot for a Day, the excitement goes both ways.
“I feel like McKay, as a young child, I was looking forward to this more than he was,” Cooley said. “I couldn’t really sleep last night, just kind of excited to see his reaction, the smile on his face. I like showing off where I work, I‘m really proud of the 4th AS; we have a lot of heritage and pride in our unit, so to be able to share that with McKay today has been my favorite part.”
During the tour, McKay received a flight suit and jacket, a 4th AS coin and badge, a SERE survival kit, a C-17 model and more to commemorate his day as an Air Force pilot.
“Steve and I were both really impressed with this program.” Jennifer said. “We've never been involved with something like this and were amazed at all that was included. From the time and effort put into it to the experiences we got to have, and yes I'll say it, the gifts we received, it was all very impressive.
“But more than that we truly felt welcomed, like everyone we met was happy to have us there and give their time, not like they were just going through the motions,” she continued. “It's pretty incredible to feel a part of something like that. We are so grateful to Robert Branscom and Captain Cooley for all their efforts to make this such an amazing experience for our family, but especially for our son. I know this is a day he will always remember.”
McKay’s special day ended with cake and ice cream at the 4th AS to celebrate his successful mission as the squadron’s newest honorary pilot.
Editor’s Note: For more information about the Pilot for a Day program visit http://lobban.com/Pages/Pilot%20For%20A%20Day.html. To nominate a child contact Robert Branscomb at firstname.lastname@example.org.