I’ve had many flying jobs over the last 19 years but the year and a half I spent flying a Learjet for a private owner allowed me many experiences I would not have had otherwise.
One of my favorite experiences was when I was presented with an opportunity to make someone’s dream come true.
The phrase “making someone’s dream come true” is often tossed around too casually and can be taken lightly. But this was a time when it really was true.
My employer’s wife was heavily involved in the “Make A Wish Foundation” that is dedicated to providing terminally ill children with the fulfillment of their dreams. She came to me with an idea that was fantastic… against the rules, but fantastic. I decided to follow through with it.
There was a 13 year-old boy with cancer named Evan who was given a wish by the foundation. “I want to fly a military fighter jet” was the reply when asked about his wish. As powerful and amazing as the Make a Wish Foundation is, they couldn’t make this happen.
We, however, were able to get about as close as you can to making that dream a reality.
We occasionally flew the Lear as a “drone” for the military to practice aircraft intercept procedures and it was strictly prohibited to carry passengers on these training missions.
You might see where this is headed.
On the morning of the mission, I met Evan and his father at the hangar. Evan was barely a teenager and already he had lived through tougher times than most people will ever know. He had been diagnosed with a terminal form of cancer and that is difficult to deal with at any age, let alone 13.
Evan was very friendly and easy to talk to. I chatted with him and his father for a few minutes and filled them in on what we were going to be doing that day. Even though it wasn’t going to actually be a chance to fly a fighter, Evan was excited just to get a ride in a private jet.
Once the door of the Lear was closed, I asked Bill, my co-pilot, to fly in the left seat. As Captain I would normally fly in the left seat but I had an idea and decided to switch things around a bit.
The training mission involved flying a pre-determined course that took us a few hundred miles out over the Pacific Ocean and then back to shore somewhere near Big Sur. At a pre-determined point on our course, we would “squawk” the hijack code in our transponder and that would start the ball rolling. The F-16s would be scrambled from somewhere near Fresno and they would intercept us to simulate what they would do if an airliner had been taken over. Once they were done, the F-16s would break off and head back to base and we would do the same.
We got to our cruising altitude and were headed out to sea. At a certain point, the air traffic control radar couldn’t “see” us anymore and we were basically on our own until we turned around and headed back into radio range.
At this point I asked Bill to go back and have Evan come up so he could take a look at the cockpit while we were flying. Bill obliged and in less than a minute, Evan was at the cockpit door. I motioned for him to take Bill’s vacated seat. He looked at me with eyes that were a bit bigger now and said, “really”? I said, “of course”.
Evan sat down, being careful not to touch anything. He didn’t realize that I was about to let him fly the aircraft all by himself.
I gave him a quick assessment to see if he knew anything about how to fly. He seemed to understand the basics but had never really flown anything other than maybe a PC flight simulator. I said to him, “Are you ready to fly a real jet”? He and his father, who was kneeling in the cockpit doorway, both seemed a bit shocked.
Evan’s reply was “sure.” I told him to take a hold of the yoke and to push the autopilot disconnect button.
Evan was flying a jet.
It may not have been a military fighter, but it was about as close as a civilian pilot can get. He was grinning from ear to ear. He was being very gentle on the controls and I told him that I could tell he had some natural talent. I instructed him to do a few shallow turns and a few small altitude changes just so he could see that he was actually flying.
This lasted for a few minutes but it was getting time to start heading back to shore so I re-engaged the autopilot and had him go back and sit with his father. Bill returned and we completed the rest of the mission with a spectacular show put on by the F-16s as they pulled up alongside us.
After we landed back in San Diego and deplaned, Evan was walking on cloud 9. I could tell he had a once in a lifetime experience and would remember this day forever.
However long that may be…
For more information on how you can make a child’s dream come true, visit the Make-A-Wish Foundation at: www.wish.org
Photos © Scott Burris
About the Author
Scott Burris’s father taught him to fly ultralight aircraft at age 13, but due to the lack of access to a two-seat trainer at the time, Scott’s first solo flight was also his first flight… ever.
Despite starting at such an early age, Scott didn’t actually get his first pilot certificate until he was 22. Since that time he has obtained an ATP with 5 type ratings and flown over 9000 hours in many different aircraft, ranging from a Quicksilver ultralight to an Airbus A330, (his favorite being a 1941 D17s). He has worn 5 different airline uniforms over his 19 year aviation career and is currently flying for a foreign airline based in Seoul, South Korea.
He recently acquired a 1957 Champ, in need of restoration. When he isn’t flying, Scott enjoys working on and driving his classic, 1969 Mustang and riding motorcycles. He lives in Gig Harbor, WA with his wife, Kim, (who is also a pilot), his dog and 2 cats.