PEACHTREE CITY, Ga. - An organization that travels the country giving special needs children airplane rides is stopping in Peachtree City this weekend.
"It was fantastic. I never thought I’d be able to fly," said Dustin Pierce, who took his first flight two years ago. "I remember my teacher, she was in the cockpit with me and she did one of those hilarious gestures like, ‘Oh, no! He’s flying the plane!’"
Dustin Pierce on his first Challenge Air flight two years ago. (Challenge Air)
The group started in the early 1990s. It was the vision of Rick Amber, a former Navy pilot who was paralyzed after catastrophic injury in a crash. Wheelchair-bound, but undaunted, he took the air again.
"He was the first FAA certified pilot that used hand controls for brakes and rudders," said Jon McMillan, who volunteers for Challenge Air.
Challenge Air founder Rick Amber was one of the first FAA certified pilot that used hand controls for brakes and rudders. (Challenge Air)
Amber started Challenge Air with the mission of sharing the love of aviation with special needs children. More than 40,000 kids have flown since it started. The children and a parent this weekend will get a free 30-minute flight. Often the children are allowed to take the controls.
"It was amazing," said Pierce, describing his taking the controls. "They actually tell you when you take the controls. So, when you take the controls, they say, ‘OK, you’re flying.’"
Rick Amber, seen here taking a group of children up for a flight. (Challenge Air)
"It’s not only a sense of great accomplishment for the child and a joy for the parents to the see their child with this tremendous amount of accomplishment, but the pilot themselves, there are such wonderful, surprising moments, to see the joy that you get on this child’s face, the smiles they are unbelievable," said Joe Montag, a Challenge Air board member.
"Rick would probably be amazing. He died in ’97 from a cancer situation, but he, I think he’d be proud that this kept going," said McMillan.
Former Navy pilot Rick Amber started Challenge Air to help special needs children learn to love aviation. (Challenge Air)
"Any special needs kids, this is something you’d got to do. It’s absolutely incredible," said Pierce.
The group holds 14 events nationwide. The Atlanta-area event happens at Falcon Field in Peachtree City the weekend.
If you would like more information on Challenge Air and this Saturday's event you can go to the organization’s website at challengeair.com.