Adam's "Pilot for a Day" actually started on Monday. We met the program coordinator (Lt. Col. Rob Balzano) and Adam's "host pilot" (Lt. Frank Gilliard) for lunch at National National Harbor, where they presented Adam with a real USAF flight suit and jacket, complete with a patch with his name on it. They had also worked with the Gaylord hotel to put us up in a suite for the night and with restaurants to feed us lunch and dinner. The hotel was amazing--
Adam with his new best friend, host pilot, Lt. Frank Gilliard
We also got to take Adam swimming for the first time in his life that evening, as he just got clearance from his doctors. He had a wonderful time being in that much water. He didn't want to get out.
We got up Tuesday morning and met Lt. Gilliard in the lobby at 0830 and then we all drove over to Andrews. As we drove around the base, we passed a large LED sign on the main thoroughfare that read "Andrews AFB welcomes our 'Pilot for a Day' Adam Henshaw and his family and friends." Nice.
We arrived at an office building where they were flying a large sign that said something very similar and we were welcomed by several other pilots from the 89th Airlift Wing, the 459th Air Refueling Wing, and the 113th "Capitol Guardians" Air National Guard wing. They escorted us into a conference room where maybe ten other people were waiting with breakfast. They kicked off the day with an opening ceremony, where the Commanding Officer, 459th, Col. Mike Allman had Adam (dressed in his flight suit) repeat an oath making him an honorary Air Force pilot and putting him under orders to "ask questions, smile a lot and have as much fun as military regulations allow."
Our first stop on the base tour was the 459th hangar where Adam got to watch the Andrews security team give demonstrations with a bomb-sniffing dog and a German Shepard attack dog. Adam loved the dogs. Immediately after, we got to board a KC-135 Stratotanker. The unit had painted Adam's name under the cockpit window--P.F.D Adam Henshaw. Adam got to sit in the cockpit and Russell spent some quality time in the back lying on his stomach at the refueling boom controls. The KC-135 is a modified Boeing 707 that can carry 200,000 pounds of fuel--enough gas to run a family car for 30 years nonstop. Lt. Gilliard, by the way, is a KC-135 tanker pilot.
Our next stop was at the 113th hangar. The 113th flies F-16 "Fighting Falcons" and is the unit charged with enforcing the airspace restrictions around Washington DC--they were the ones who were in the air on Sept 12, 2001 with orders to shoot down any planes trying to fly into the city. The 113th had an F-16 with Adam's name stenciled on it and we got to take some pictures next to the planes. We didn't get to sit in cockpit of that one, but our next stop was at the 113th training/office facility where Adam and Russell both got to fly an F-16 simulator, put on a real flight helmet, check out a night vision monocle, and see other kinds of pilot gear. One of the F-16 pilots landed while we were there, so he came in dressed in full pilot's gear and talked with Adam and Russell in the hallway.
The next stop was across the base at the hangar's of the 89th Airlift Wing. The 89th is a unit that flies Air Force One, and smaller aircraft to ferry around senior military officers (3- and 4-star generals, admirals, etc) and high ranking government officials (cabinet secretaries, Congressional leadership, etc). On their Tarmac, they had a special surprise for Adam--a medical airlift helicopter like the one that had flown him to the hospital the day he was diagnosed with leukemia came in and landed right in front of us. Adam ran up and gave the flight nurse a hug when she got out, and he got to spend some quality time in the cockpit of that one. Then, the Maryland State Police landed one of their larger medical helicopters and their pilot had another surprise--he offered to give Adam a ride! So Adam, Russell, and Dad got to fly in the helicopter. Adam was in the co-pilot seat while Dad and Russell were in the back. Then, without warning Dad first, the pilot asked Adam if he wanted to fly the helicopter. Adam, of course, said yes and the pilot took his hands off the stick and let Adam move the helicopter around the sky. The pilot then said, "Dad, that's your son flying." Dad was thinking that it was a good thing this was a medical helicopter, as he was about to have a heart attack.
Adam at the controls of "Bumblebee"
They landed the helicopter and we all got to eat lunch aboard a Boeing C-40B (a modified, *very* swanky Boeing 737). Then, to get us to our next stop, Adam was asked to be the Captain of the plane while they taxied us across the airfield to the Air Traffic Control Tower. Adam got to make the announcement over the intercom--"This is Adam Henshaw. I will be the pilot on this flight. It might be a bumpy ride. I'll do my best." (Something to that effect). We taxied over, deplaned, and got to climb up to the top of the ATC. While there, we watched some F-16's take off. Once that was finished, our final stop on the tour was the base Fire Department. Adam, Russell, and Mom got to ride around in a real pumper truck, fire the water cannons, and handle other fireman gear. That unit gave Adam a blanked and a real fireman's helmet (used, complete with fire damage).
Adam making his pilot announcement
At that point, we were all wearing out pretty good, but we were almost done. They took us back to the 459th conference space for the closing ceremony. Lt. Col. Balzano had put together a slide show of pictures from the tour. Then all of the units that had taken part on the tour gave Adam presents--unit patches, challenge coins, toys (all airplanes, naturally), t-shirts, stickers. The Fisher House Foundation, an organization which provides housing next to hospitals for the military much like the Ronald McDonald House, also participated in the presentation with a very generous gift of about five presents. And to top it all off, Check6 Foundation presented Adam with a very unexpected financial gift to put towards flight lessons when he gets older! After that presentation, we had an informal reception including a cake with Adam's name on it as well as the "Pilot for a Day" logo.
Clearly, it's been a long day...
So it was a busy day. I haven't included everything we did and saw, just the highlights. It was an amazing day, and was a great reminder why the US has the best military in the world--it's populated by some of the best people the country has to offer. It was fun to feel the "military is a big family" feeling again and to see how willing the military is to adopt people into that family.We really did feel like family by the time we left. It was absolutely incredible to witness the amount of effort that went into creating this day. We had no idea it was going to be this big. I spent a good part of the time desperately fighting back tears. The contrast of Adam in the hospital and Adam in his "very happy place" was sharp. It was especially difficult to hold back the tears (I failed miserably) when the medivac helicopter came. We had spent countless hours, day and night, watching for "Bumblebee" (Adam named his helicopter that because it was yellow and black) while he was sick. It seemed to be the one thing that would take his mind off of therapy. So when that helicopter flew into view and we could tell it was a medivac helicopter much like the one he had adopted as his own, my mother heart burst wide open. It was a gift to my son that no one else will ever understand. It would have been more than enough to have just the one helicopter come in, but shortly after it landed the second one appeared. I'm not certain Adam knew what to do with himself. And I never in a million years expected him to be taken for a ride, much less fly the machine.
Needless to say, we are deeply touched by this entire experience. It is certainly something we will never forget. To the entire group who put this together, to those who participated in any way, and to Andrews Air Force Base, WE THANK YOU!! A million times over. I didn't think it was possible to experience as much joy and excitement as we've experienced fear and heartache. But you did it. You pulled it off. And we are forever grateful!
Thank you to Lt. Col. Rob Balzano for providing this slide show.
We love it!