A Very Special Olympics

by David Miller, CJP Director of Programs and Safety Education

(The following is reprinted with permission from the August 2022 issue of Twin & Turbine magazine.)

CJP FL 0822 Special Olympics 2When you have ended your flying career, what will you remember most? Perhaps breaking out at 200 feet on a foggy night with runway lights in sight. Or crossing the Colorado Rockies at dawn on a summer morning.

For Patty and me, it will be the smiles on the faces of hundreds of Special Olympics athletes.

On June 4, after two years of planning, the Textron Aviation Special Olympics Airlift welcomed over 800 athletes to Orlando Executive airport in the largest peacetime airlift. Hundreds of volunteers gathered on the ramp at sunrise on a rainy, low overcast morning to greet 128 airplanes. The athletes were flown free of charge by volunteer pilots from almost every state in the country in Citations, King Airs, Premiers, Beechjets and Hawkers. The athletes ranged in age from 11 to 84, but for many, it was their first airplane ride.

And what a ride it was.

Each airplane was issued a unique “Dove” callsign by the FAA. And each got very special handling from their departure points across America to touchdown.

“Dove One,” a Citation from Coca-Cola Consolidated, Inc., was the lead airplane with first landing rights. In the elaborate Textron Aviation welcoming tent, a big screen monitor showed a problem. “Dove 7,” a King Air, was ahead of “Dove One” and would land first. With expected military precision, the planning was slightly off.

A quick call with the FAA and “Dove 7″ got a short vector until all was right. And all day long, the event was perfectly choreographed.

On the ramp, the Textron Aviation volunteers wore matching red shirts, as did industry leaders like Trent Corcia of CJP, Ed Bolen of NBAA, Pete and Patty Bunce of GAMA, and the event’s biggest cheerleader, Textron Aviation CEO, Ron Draper.

Every two minutes, an airplane landed and taxied into one of seven rows. As the cabin door opened, the baggage keys were tossed to a lineman while the tug operator connected the airplane. An “all clear” signal from a ramp agent gave us the go-ahead to sprint to the airplane to welcome the participants with exciting cheering and music.

CJP FL 0822 Special Olympics 1

The rock star athletes, grinning from ear to ear, loved every moment. They “high-fived” every one of the greeters as they gingerly stepped off their magic carpets.

“Do you like football?” I asked one. “Yes!” came the answer. “Do you know who Peyton Manning is?” I continued. “Of course,” he said. “Well, he is standing right next to you. Want a picture with him?”

Peyton stood with us for six hours in the rain to welcome the star-struck athletes. I think it was the highlight of his day too.

Hats off to everyone: the Citation Jet Pilots organization (that provided almost half of the aircraft), corporate flight departments and fractional operators that loaned their airplanes, the FAA, and FBOs across the country that donated fuel, provided water cannon salutes to the departing airplanes and more.

This is what I will remember.

Fly safe.