The sky’s the limit: Metro kids with special needs become co-pilots for a day

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Roughly 600 people filed in and out of Hangar 9, home of the Airline History Museum at the Charles Wheeler Downtown Airport in Kansas City, on Saturday, Sept. 7.

They were all there for Challenge Air, an opportunity for children with special needs to take flight and pilot a plane. For one day, the sky is the limit.

For more than 100 years, humans have had the ability to fly. However, most of us don't have much experience with it, especially those with special needs.

Not Meghan Schmidt.

"This is my third time doing this," she said as she held a cane that helped her walk.

Schmidt is legally blind, but that hasn't stopped her yet. In fact, that's why she's back.

"You feel free," the 20-year-old said. It just makes me feel really happy to be flying."

Chevy Mesias is about to feel it for the first time. He, his best friend's father, and his best friend's sister are going up in Austin Plain's plane. (Yes, that's his last name is really Plain).

Plain's seven-seat Piper Chieftain had Plain in the pilot's seat and Chevy in the co-pilot's seat.

"Okay, so you ready to go?" Plain said into the headset to Chevy. "We've been cleared for takeoff."

This was Chevy's first time in a plane.

"This is your first time off the Earth, isn't it?" asked Plain. "Yeah," Chevy answered, entranced with the gauges on the dashboard.

The 15 year old with autism wants to be a pilot. Among the clouds, he took in every moment.

"Okay, you want to try to fly this thing?"

"Yeah," Chevy said with enthusiasm.

The 45-minute flight around the metro roughly followed the I-435 loop. By the time the Piper was over the stadiums, Chevy had the yoke (control wheel).

"What is that over there?" Plain asked his co-pilot.

"Chiefs Stadium!" Chevy said.

"Yeah man! That's the Chiefs stadium," Plain responded with a smile. "Can you imagine watching a football game from up here?"

With flying comes freedom. With freedom comes confidence.

Within five minutes of Chevy taking the controls, Plain announced to the crowd on board, "He's doing great!"

When the plane touched back down, that confidence stayed with Chevy.

"I loved it," he said. He was eager to do it again. And his favorite part of the flight? "Seeing Kansas City Chiefs stadium."

That's what Challenge Air brings these families.

"The light in their eyes," Joe Dimino said. He has brought his son, Chevy's best friend, for several years now.

"When something happens for the first time, it's magical, it's cool. And this whole thing is awesome because they're giving kids the opportunity they wouldn't have otherwise in a comfortable environment."

With roughly 100 children with special needs in Hangar 9, many were experiencing flight for the first time. However, almost everyone in the Hangar recognized others.

"It's fun. The kids love it. It's a community," Dimino said. "The thing about it, especially with kids of special needs, is building a community. We know all, or a lot of people here. I recommend it to a lot of people."

Roughly 20 pilots donate their time and planes every year.  For pilot Austin Plain, this is a can't-miss date.

"These kids, once they fly, and when they get on the ground, and get on the ground, I think they know, 'I can do anything.'"

And Plain saw that happen with Chevy.

"He did a great job, he had so much fun," Plain said. "And you guys couldn't see him up there like I could. But the smile on his face was priceless."

As Dimino said, "Anytime you don't feel so lonely in this world, and you can get something cool out of it, that's pure altruism. It's good."

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