Challenge Air hands flight controls to youngsters with special needs

By Joe Snell | DFW Newsflash | May 2017

As his son took over the plane’s yoke, Brad Forsthoff leaned toward the window and pointed at landmarks he has been flying over for years.

Forsthoff and his son Christopher’s fourth flight in five years took place as part of the McKinney Challenge Air Fly Day, an event that allowed special needs kids to fly real airplanes alongside a pilot at the McKinney Airport on April 8.

“The whole purpose of this is to show these kids who have special needs that if they can control a plane up in the air, then they can really do anything in life,” Forsthoff said. “The whole goal of this entire gathering is to show the kids there are things out there that they can do. Christopher has enjoyed every minute of every time we’ve come.”

The event, which has been going on for over 20 years, begins with a quick briefing before kids are led to airplanes, each with a pilot and a flight team. Every one of the 143 kids who participated could take a 20 minute flight and after they landed, each received a certificate, had wings put on their shirts and walked across a red carpet lined with local high school cheerleaders.

“When a little brother and sister brings their siblings down the red carpet, they’re all smiling,” said event volunteer K. Lyle Froese of the McKinney Sunset rotary club. “All of them, and that’s just worth an awful lot.”

Challenge Air was founded by Rick Amber, who became a quadriplegic when his plane crashed in the Vietnam War. When he came back to the states, Amber learned to fly general aviation with hand controls and took up wheelchair tennis. After winning the U.S. Open National Wheelchair Tennis Championship and going on to teach wheelchair tennis lessons, some of his tennis students asked if they could fly with him.

“They met in this grass field,” said April Culver, executive director of Challenge Air who has been with the company for nearly seven years. “The transformation he saw on the kids faces from being in a wheelchair, and then being in the airplane and actually flying was just so phenomenal, he thought that ‘I need to make sure I can do this for all kids.’”

That first flight in 1991 watered the early seeds for what is now known as Challenge Air, a group whose mission is to build confidence and self-esteem in kids with special needs through the gift of flight.

“Our motto is if you can fly an airplane, what else can you do?” Culver said. “A lot of these kids can’t play on team sports, and there are not a lot of extra activities, so they get to come here and be normal.” She estimates they’ve flown almost 40,000 kids in 23 years in almost every state in the country.

Challenge Air puts on 12 to 15 events a year for kids between the ages of 7 and 21. Each event hosts roughly 150 kids with special needs and tends to attract the same volunteers year after year.

“This is our third or fourth year to do this,” volunteer Steve Wintory said. “I used to work in special ed, so I know what it means to these kids to get a chance to do something a little out of the box.”

Wintory’s job for the day was escorting students along with pilots from the hangar to the plane, helped them get on board safely, and making sure they got off the plane safely and onto the red carpet.

“This is an opportunity to break some boundaries that they might have preconceived and just let them know that there’s a lot out in the world to be experienced,” he said. “A lot of them will be able to go beyond here and this will be a big highlight for them.”

This was Froese’s fourth time attending the event and he’s seen the event grow a lot.

“The rotary clubs here in McKinney have supported Challenge Air for a number of years,” he said. “It’s bigger. We have more pilots and more planes. The amazing thing is these pilots give their time, they pay their own fuel, they give their Saturday, and it’s just amazing.” Eighteen pilots volunteered their Saturdays to fly all 143 students, so each pilot and their flight team took around seven to eight flights.

“We couldn’t do this without our pilots,” Weaver said. “We can’t pay for their fuel, we can’t give them the fuel, so really they make the magic happen. They’re the ones that talk to the kids, tell them what to do, tell them how cool this is that they’re flying the plane.”

The pilots agreed it is a thrill to see a kid’s reactions in the air.

“[These kids] get such a thrill out of it, because you tell the kids nobody has a disability,” pilot John Couzelis said. “You can do anything if you can fly this airplane. You can do anything in your life, there’s no challenge that you can’t overcome.”

Couzelis first heard about the event from a friend in 2008 and has been volunteering with Challenge Air twice a year since then. He says doing the event is his way of giving back his gift of flying.

“God gave us this talent,” he said. “So we’re trying to give back to God what he gave us.”