Category Archives: DFW News Flash

Challenge Air hands controls to youngsters with special needs

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.”

Lockheed Martin presents check to Veterans Fund

With an F-35 as the backdrop, Lockheed Martin presented the United Way of Tarrant County’s Veterans Fund with a $315,000 donation as part of the Lockheed Martin’s Armed Forces Bowl.

Jeff Babione, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Vice President and General Manager, awarded the check and shared his enthusiasm about organizations working together to help veterans.

“Lockheed’s saying is we never forget who we’re working for; that’s really about the veterans, the men and women who use the equipment we produce to help keep us safe around the world,” Babione said. “United Way has a very similar focus, particularly this veteran’s fund.”

The United Way of Tarrant County established a veterans fund in 2013 through a grant from Lockheed Martin and support by additional community members. Lockheed Martin has donated to the fund since its inception. This is the first year the public is able to contribute to the campaign.

TD Smyers, United Way of Tarrant County Executive Vice President, accepted the check.

“The whole point is the community taking care of the community,” Smyers said. “We want people to know about it. We want to take Lockheed’s lead and bring more people on board. They’ve reached out to other companies to encourage them to join in and be a part of this.”

The funds will go toward providing community-based services needed by military members transitioning back into civilian life in Tarrant County, including coaching veterans back into the workplace, providing family counseling, PTS counseling, and treatment for traumatic brain injury.

“We take agencies we work with that have veteran programs specifically,” Smyers said. “It runs the gambit of the needs of not only the veteran, but the veteran’s family, or the veteran’s caregivers.”

Smyers, a 30-year veteran himself, talked about the difficulties many face transitioning back into civilian life.

“Veterans have come from a really austere working environment, sometimes under fire and under combat conditions,” Smyers said. “They’re returning to a much more peaceful existence.

“We’ve actually hired a military services rep who’s available to them. They call 211 and ask for the military rep. It’s [the military rep’s] role to help them navigate the waters and find exactly what they need.”

The event took place on Wednesday, Dec. 21 at Fort Worth’s General Worth Square as a crowd of visitors, including a number of veterans and Lockheed employees, waited in line to take their photos inside the plane’s cockpit.

Jeff Bailey, a firefighter who does training with the aircraft, was happy to finally show his daughters what he has been working on.

“My family gets to finally see what we make out of Lockheed and what I help protect,” Bailey said. “They’re finally getting to understand more why I’m gone 24 hours at a time.”

During the check celebration, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price thanked both United Way and Lockheed Martin for their contributions to the community.

“Currently, we have 10,000 plus employees at Lockheed Martin helping deliver the best product to our men and women who serve and keep us free,” Price said. “When you hear those planes overhead, they’re coming from Lockheed Martin. It’s the sound of freedom, is what we like to say in Fort Worth.”