JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas —
The 560th Flying Training Squadron welcomed its
newest pilot, as part of the “Pilot for A Day” program July 17 at
Jared Stadler, became a pilot and joined the ranks
of the 560th FTS “Chargin’ Cheetahs,” thanks to a program started more than 20
years ago by former Capt. Rory Blackburn and his wife, Shelley.
Jared, who is the son of Army Capt. Tim and Megan
Stadler is 15 years old and has a brain tumor. He attends Cole High School at
JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, where his father is stationed.
“It’s really good that they let me do this because
they don’t have to,” Jared said. “I feel really good I am very excited because
I love to see airplanes fly by and today I get to see real pilots in person.”
The program began in December 1994, when the
Blackburns started the “Pilot for A Day” program at JBSA-Randolph.
“It gives the kids an opportunity to get away from
the hospital and see what it’s like to be a pilot,” Lt. Col. Joel DeBoer, 560th
FTS commander, said. “It’s to provide them hope, encouragement and smiles, in a
time when they are struggling and down. We show them what it’s like to be a
pilot, show them the aircraft, the simulators and ride on the fire truck. It’s
about building them up and encouraging them.”
The program evolved on its own as instructor pilots
and student pilots left the 560th FTS and went on to other duty stations and
carried on the tradition for children in other states.
“I was not flying an F-16 anymore, I was here with
Shelley in surgery for the 18th time and my life was in turmoil,” Blackburn said.
“Then I saw a little kid pulling a pole, his butt sticking out and an IV
underneath his gown and he had a shaved head. They were several kids there and
I felt like they were being cheated.
“How could I feel sorry for myself, my heart went
out to them,” he recalled as he briefed Maj. Cheryl Buehn, current “Pilot for A
Day” program coordinator. “These children usually spend more time in the
hospital than with their peers or families.”
It was a difficult time for Blackburn and his family
as his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, so they decided to
create a program to help young patients afflicted with catastrophic illness.
The program is for children of all ages with chronic
conditions invited to be guests of a flying squadron and spend an entire day as
a pilot with the goal of giving them a break from the challenges that they
typically face day-to-day.
“It’s great to just watch him not have to worry
about anything else going on and just be a 15-year-old and be wowed by things
not thinking about chemo,” Tim Stadler, Jared’s father said. “We all go through
things like this in life and he takes it like just another day, it puts things
into perspective. Like when you get down because your sports team lost or being
10 pounds overweight, it seems irrelevant.”
The day for the new pilot starts out when a member
of the squadron meets the child and the family at the visitor center and
escorts them to the squadron for a breakfast reception hosted by the squadron’s
pilots and their spouses.
“He gets a flight suit and patches, and during pilot
call he’s introduced to other pilots as one of the pilots,” Maj. Michael
Granberry, former “Pilot for A Day” organizer, said.
The first stop on the tour is at the life support
section. “NCOs assigned here give the pilots the necessary survival
training required to handle an ejection from the aircraft,” DeBoer said. “This
training includes seat operation procedures as well as how to survive in the
Following the life support section, decked out in
his flight suit, the child goes out to the flight line to get a closer look at a
T-38, T-1 and T- 6.
The aircraft is even personalized with the name of the
“Pilot for A Day” on the side of the aircraft.
The new pilot is also given the
opportunity to sit inside the jet.
“This is such an amazing program that all at
JBSA-Randolph are a part of,” Buehn said. “It is a very special day for Jared
as he is hopefully removed from focusing on the treatments and given the chance
to be a kid living out his dream for the day. We appreciate all that the JBSA
community has done to make this day special.”
In addition, “Pilots for A Day,” also get a closer
look at the control tower, fire department, aircraft simulators, an even a tour
of Randolph’s Taj.
The majority of the young pilots have their photos
hanging on the walls at the 560th Flying Training Squadron.To date, more than
100 children have been “Pilots for A Day.”
“The 560th has a very
rich history from World War II to Vietnam to present day,” DeBoer said. “The
Freedom Flyers and POWs are part of our history and so is ‘Pilot for A Day.’ On our wall you see those pictures and see
those kids’ smiles, I wanted to ensure that, that piece of our history is
preserved and continued because I think it’s an honorable and deserved, just
course. It’s a small way we can make an impact in a kid’s life and help our
community. If we can help take away the child’s struggle with their sickness
then it was worth it.”