Pilot for a Day, memories for life
By Staff Sgt. Megan P. Lyon, 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 16, 2012
ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- When 10-year-old Jack woke up early on March 14, 2012, he thought he was going to a doctor's appointment.
He was understandably grumpy.
His parents, however, had been keeping a secret. Instead of going to the hospital, Jack arrived at RAF Lakenheath to become a Pilot for a Day as part of an early birthday surprise.
"He was overwhelmed," said Helen Driver, Jack's mother. "He was speechless as we went through the gate."
The Pilot for a Day program helps assist children in the local community who are fighting life-threatening illnesses or conditions by providing a day of fun as well as a break from the routine doctor and hospital visits.
"This morning when I woke up at 6 a.m., I thought I had to go to Addenbrooke's [Hospital] but actually we were coming here," said Jack, who has Aplastic Anemia, a rare auto immune disorder where bone marrow fails to make enough blood cells.
The program was started by Capt. Jason Bianchi, a 493rd Fighter Squadron F-15C Eagle pilot. Bianchi was diagnosed with testicular cancer in January 2010. During treatment, Bianchi decided when he got better he would reach out and do something.
He knew about Pilot of a Day programs at other bases, however when he arrived at RAF Lakenheath he found out there was no such program. So he decided to start one.
"It's something I can do, something that is unique to me, that I can give back to the local community," said Bianchi.
While working with the local hospital to find a candidate, Bianchi was told about Jack, a local boy from Ipswich.
"Jack is a phenomenal and brilliant young man. He blows me away with how much he knows about aviation," said Bianchi. "He studies aircraft history, performance statistics and armament. He literally is a walking encyclopedia of aircraft knowledge."
To kick start the day, Jack had a mission brief with Col. Joseph Coogan, 48th Operations Group deputy commander, where he was given a flight suit made especially for him with 48th Fighter Wing, 493rd FS and name patches.
Once properly suited up, he went to the F-15 flight simulator where he destroyed 10 enemy aircraft. When properly familiarized with flying a jet, he made his way to the flightline to see and sit in an F-15C Eagle and a HH-60G Pave Hawk.
"I've always wanted to be a pilot, ever since I went to Bristol in 2010 when I went there to have a bone marrow transplant," said Jack.
Following lunch, Jack climbed to the top of the Air Traffic Control Tower where he watched jets take off and then tracked the jets at Radar Control.
After visiting with the "Bird Man," Keith Mutton and coming up close and personal with a very large eagle owl named Twinkle, who helps limit flightline bird habitation, he stopped by the "hush house" where he helped throttle up a jet engine during a test run.
Once the test run was done, Jack helped the 48th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department fight fires.
At the last stop of the day, Jack was presented with his official pilot wings from Lt. Col. Michael Casey, 493rd FS commander.
For Jack, the toughest part of the day was figuring out his favorite part of the day.
"It's very hard to decide. I really loved sitting in the Pave Hawk and the F-15 Eagle and I also loved being in the simulator and shooting down 10 enemy aircraft. I can't decide, everything was so good," he said.