July 2013 -
April 21, 2013 1340Z: "Columbus Clearance, Shane 1. Through the Warren County RCO requesting VFR Flight Following to South Bend Regional at six thousand, five hundred."
"Shane 1, Columbus Approach. Good morning, squawk 6666; maintain VFR and contact Columbus Approach on 118.55 when airborne."
"Columbus Approach, Shane 1. Squawk 6666; contact Columbus on 118.55. We'll be airborne shortly."
On a see-forever Sunday morning in late April, I'm sitting in a twin engine airplane at I68, Lebanon-Warren County airport, 20 miles north of Cincinnati. In the back is Chuck DiGiovanna. He was supposed to be accompanied by his wife Patsy and their daughter, but Megan awoke this morning feeling like every spring allergy known to humanity had attacked her, so Patsy and Megan stayed home—much to their dismay.
You see, today is a special day because Chuck and Patsy's son is going to realize a dream. He's going to control a real airplane all by himself. No X-Plane simulator this time; this time is for real. This time he is going to be a real pilot.
Sitting beside me in the copilot seat is Shane DiGiovanna, a 14-year-old boy with Epidermolysis bullosa, an incurable and extremely painful skin disease. Shane's skin is so fragile that to touch him with more than the lightest pressure causes a blister to form. Every day his mom or dad spends four to five hours cleansing and bandaging virtually his entire body to protect him from harm. Even with those efforts, Shane is in pain most the time, particularly his feet.
Shane's hands are heavily bandaged, plus he has other problems with his hands and fingers. It's difficult for him to grip objects. He's hardly ever comfortable, but he accepts the cards he has been dealt and makes the most of it.
Shane was born deaf but can now hear after receiving a special implant, which also allowed him to learn to talk. Amazingly, his dad tells me that Shane's first spoken word was "airplane." Shane dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer and working for NASA.
The checklist is complete except for the runup, and Shane is watching me like a cat watches a mouse hole. He is not missing a thing.
Runup complete. It's time to go. "Warren County traffic, November 803GM is departing Runway One."
As we break ground and blast past Vyse, I call out silently to myself, Positive rate, gear up. Shane's head is on a swivel as we climb out. His eyes are as big as silver dollars. He's having a ball—and so am I.
Ever since his wish was granted by Make-A-Wish in 2011 for a zero gravity experience with ZERO-G, Shane cannot get enough of the skies. He wants to fly an airplane—and Mike and JoAnn Johnson, the airplane owners, want to make the dream come true. Although they live in Michigan, an hour and a half by air from Cincinnati, the Johnsons want to help a teenage boy they don't know and will probably never meet. They are two souls in an incredible group of people who will make today special.
Shane thinks he's getting an airplane ride, and maybe a few minutes at the controls. Boy, is he going to be surprised.
Feb. 15, 2013
My friend Eric Malloy had recently become active as a volunteer with Make-A-Wish, an organization that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions, and he was wondering if I could possibly help with an idea he had.
Because of Eric, I became aware of Shane DiGiovanna and his granted wish through Make-A-Wish for a zero gravity experience that fueled his love of flying. I eventually talked to Shane's mom and dad about a trip for their son during which he could actually control an airplane—something Shane wanted to do more than anything else. The problem was I no longer owned an airplane.
As luck would have it, I knew a couple that did. In fact, the couple owned the airplane that used to be mine... and I was flying it for them.
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, if you have a minute, I'd like to tell you about a boy named Shane DiGiovanna... Mike and JoAnn immediately fell in love with the idea of helping Shane realize his dream, and I now had an airplane to make it possible.
March 15, 2013
In late winter, there was no way we were going to schedule a flight with any assurance that the weather would be VFR—and it had to be VFR so Shane could control the airplane. I reached an agreement with Chuck and Patsy to defer the trip for a few weeks. Meanwhile, they narrowed down the destination to South Bend, Ind., which is the location of Notre Dame University, Chuck's alma mater.
The DiGiovanna clan thought that the selection of a destination was the end of the process. I had other ideas.
April 2, 2013
The first thing I wanted was a special call sign for the trip. How neat would it be for Shane to hear his name come over the speaker as the official call sign for the flight? But I had no idea how to make that happen.
By the end of the first week in April I was talking to Ron Laster at the FAA's regional Air Traffic Operations facility in Fort Worth, Tex. Ron knew exactly what to do. He contacted the managers of the TRACONs whose airspace I would be invading and got their okay to use the call sign "SHANE 1" for both the outbound and return flights. The only stipulation was I had to remain VFR.
Since VFR flight following was ideal for this trip, I readily agreed—and Shane 1 became the identification that would appear in the computer-generated data block on the radar that would track our flight. In all, seven FAA people made this happen. Never again will I believe that FAA employees are heartless bureaucrats.
This made 11 souls involved in the Make-A-Wish endeavor. There would be more.
April 5, 2013
Sometimes it's obvious there's a guiding hand at work. This was one of those times and things were about to be taken over by a higher authority: Thank you very much, John. I've got this now.
An idea for a special treat entered my head. Even though my idea involved the South Bend Airport infrastructure, I didn't call the air board. For some reason, it just didn't seem like the right place to start. Instead, I called Atlantic Aviation, the FBO at South Bend, and Christi Peterson, the customer service manager, answered the phone.
Atlantic has a corporate culture emphasizing strong customer service and Mike Todorow, the general manager of the South Bend facility, is known for his hospitality, but I had no idea who Ms. Peterson was or what her attitude would be toward the flight. I soon found out that if she wasn't an angel herself, she was on exceptionally good terms with a couple of them.
"Ms Peterson," I said, "I need your help. I'm doing a compassion flight for a boy named Shane DiGiovanna and I'd like to arrange a water arch honor for his arrival at South Bend. Do you think you can help me pull that off?"
An hour later, she called back and said she had spoken with Michael Omat, the chief of the airport's public safety department and arranged for the Crash/Rescue/Fire (CRF) truck to provide an honor usually reserved for airline captains—the one where they shoot a huge arch of water over the airplane during the taxi to the terminal. Matt Willis, CRF officer, would be doing the actual water arch spray.
She then asked me to tell her a little about Shane and I explained his illness as well as his interests and desires. She listened patiently and asked a few questions. When she heard Shane's dad was a Notre Dame alumnus, she said she had a few ideas of her own involving the university and would get back to me. There were now over a dozen people involved in the endeavor.
April 8-18, 2013
Christi's first action was to speak with Al Troyer, a type rated captain that guides the Notre Dame University's Phenom corporate jet through the flight levels. Would he consider coming in on a Sunday to give a young man a tour of the jet and answer any questions he had? Al lives many miles away and Sunday isn't a normal work day but the answer was, "Absolutely. I'll be there."
Next stop on the Christi Express was the athletic department at Notre Dame. She asked if Coach Kelly would consider autographing a football for Shane? "Of course," came the reply.
The final stop was the aeronautical engineering department. Normally, there is no one around on a Sunday at the department but Shane's life goal is to become an Aeronautical Engineer, and Christi explained that Sunday was the only day Shane could visit the campus.
Hearing Shane's story, another of Notre Dame's finest, Phil Rollins, would sacrifice his Sunday and come in to give Shane a tour of the department's wind tunnel as well as answer any aeronautical engineering questions that Shane might have.
Everything was now in place.
April 19, 2013
If only we could catch a break with the weather. It had been raining every day for a week, but everyone was anxious to do the flight. I had to advise the FAA of the date when we were going to fly, plus Christi had to coordinate everything on her end. I took a chance that the unseen hand in all of this would have no problem parting the clouds and stopping the rain.
I called Ron at the Fort Worth facility and told him we were going to fly the trip on Sunday, April 21. He said fine, he'd advise the TRACONs. Next, I called Christi and told her that the weather models looked good to me and I thought we could do the trip. I asked her to tell the Notre Dame contacts plus the Crash/Rescue/Fire group we would be arriving around 11 a.m. I then contacted Chuck DiGiovanna and told him we were a go for Sunday, the 21st.
Saturday the skies were clearing but the surface wind was very strong. Turbulence aloft along the route was reported as moderate. Hopefully Sunday would be better. By this time, I was convinced that this flight was preordained and it would happen. I slept well Saturday night as a result.
April 21, 2013 1350Z
"Columbus Approach, Shane 1 is with you out of two thousand, runway heading; climbing to six thousand, five hundred."
"Shane 1, Columbus Approach. Radar contact; maintain VFR; proceed on course."
Leveling at 6,500, I set the power and RPM, sync the props, and trim the airplane for straight and level flight. The visibility is unlimited—not a cloud in the sky—and the ride is like sliding across an oiled pane of glass.
Looking over at Shane, I can see he's chomping at the bit to get his hands on the controls. Having previously briefed him on exchange of controls protocol, I tell him, "Your airplane."
I am expecting a roller coaster ride with a bit of Tilt-A-Whirl thrown in for good measure. That's how it normally works with a new student. Not so in this case. All those hours on X-Plane made an impression on Shane and he quickly gets the feel for the wing.
He watches the magenta line on the GPS display and nails the course. No altitude excursions beyond a couple hundred feet and no lateral deviations off course more than a few degrees. He corrects when things begin to go astray and never over-controls. Not even once.
April 21, 2013 1415Z
Columbus TRACON hands us off to Fort Wayne approach and Shane continues to be tightly focused on the task at hand. Normally chatty, he is silent. Locked in mentally, he's functioning as a human autopilot.
This kid is a natural stick. He has a feel for the airplane, and this isn't a trainer—it's a business-class airplane. I'm very impressed.
April 21, 2013 1430Z
I call up Atlantic Aviation on the Unicom and advise we are about 15 minutes out. Christi answers my call and says everything is ready. We're about to start springing the surprises on Shane.
April 21, 2013 1440Z
"South Bend Approach, Shane 1 is with you with Information Bravo, looking for lower."
I'm VFR and don't technically have to ask permission to descend, but old IFR habits die hard. It was the right thing to say this time, however, as Approach gives me a clearance limit for the descent of 3,000 feet. Apparently there is traffic somewhere not showing up on the PCAS.
I tell Shane that I need the controls now and he immediately, but reluctantly, gives them up.
We have a nice crosswind so a crab is in order. Shane watches intently as the base turns into final and the airplane is not pointed at the runway. He doesn't say anything and I kick out the crab, lower the wing and we touch down gently and right on the centerline. He is impressed. (I know it was nine-tenths luck, but don't tell him.)
"Shane 1, taxi to the ramp via November and Alpha. I say again, November and Alpha. Stay with me."
South Bend tower wants to make certain that I am in position to taxi under the water arch. I appreciate their interest.
Shane watches in wonder as Matt cranks up the pressure and shoots a stream of water far above the airplane as we taxi past. Everything gets misty from the overspray. Or is it my eyes?
We pull into the Atlantic Aviation ramp and are marshaled into place. The CRF truck parks ahead of us and Matt steps out. I shut down the engines and Christi materializes next to the airplane. She has come in on her day off to make certain things go well. I give her a hug and thank her for all she has done. Chuck and Shane talk to Matt and greet Christi. Shane's eyes are as big as silver dollars again.
Al Troyer is there, ready to give Shane a tour of the Phenom. And Talaya Thompson of the South Bend Airport Operations department is in attendance as well.
Once Shane is inside the Phenom, we begin to think this is where he will spend the day. Chuck thinks that perhaps he is going to have to pry him away. But Al patiently answers his questions and Christi presents him with Coach Brian Kelly's gift of the signed football as he sits in the university's beautiful jet. She tells Shane that Coach Kelly, and his administrative assistant Beth Rex, wish him well and hope he enjoys his visit to the university campus.
Atlantic Aviation has waived the facility fees for our flight and would have loaned Chuck and Shane a crew car, but Dick Dooley, a DiGiovanna relative from Chicago, arrives and soon Shane is on his way to Notre Dame for a private tour of the Aeronautical Engineering department's wind tunnel. Aeronautical engineer Phil Rollins answers his questions and explains the operation of the tunnel.
Not for the first time today, Shane has one word to describe what he is seeing and experiencing: "amazing."
Chuck proudly shows his son the famed Golden Dome and the places where he studied as he obtained his undergraduate degree several years prior. It's a magical time for father and son.
All too soon, it's time to return home. Chuck asks if I could request a deviation from the direct route home so that Shane can see Lake Michigan. The South Bend TRACON quickly approves and we make a turn out over the lake at 3,500 feet, climb to 5,500 feet and head for home.
Once more Shane has the controls; however, sneaky person that I am, I'm operating right at the boundary layer so that he can experience some light chop. He aces it. Still no appreciable deviations in altitude. This is one amazing young man.
As we make our way back to I68, I marvel at this day and the seamless confluence of events that allowed it all to happen. As I land, I'm tired but very happy to have been a part of it all. Later that night, I get an email from Chuck. He says Shane is exhausted, but ecstatic.
Nearly two dozen people worked to make the day extra special for Shane. The weather, so bad for so long, suddenly cleared. The flight itself was flawless. And the FAA, Atlantic Aviation, the University of Notre Dame, and the South Bend Airport Authority could not have done more.
But most of all, there is Christi Peterson. Without her the trip would have still happened, but it would have had no special events. No human side. No lifelong memories.
Lifelong memories. Because of this day, many people have them. Not just Shane and his family, but others as well.
If you want to feel good—really good—fly one of these flights. Give back some of what you have been given as a pilot. I promise you, it will be one of the best experiences of your life.
To see a two-minute clip of Shane at the controls of the airplane, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edeYW1E1RPM.
John Loughmiller is a 4,600-hour commercial pilot and CFII MEI-A. He lives in Kentucky with Donna, his wife of 39 years, and often commits random acts of aviation. Send questions or comments to editor [AT] piperflyer [DOT] com.