Wingmen serve terminally ill ‘Pilots for a Day’
By Ready54.org, Air National Guard
/ Published October 08, 2014
Eight-year-old Ne'Vaeh Littleton transforms from brain cancer patient to pilot as he promises to "have as much fun as military regulations allow" in the Pilot for a Day program.
Looking handsome in his personalized flight suit, 8-year-old Ne'Vaeh took his oath of office promising to "ask questions, smile a lot, and have as much fun as military regulations allow." So began one of the most magical days of his life. Those who have met him believe it is no coincidence that his name is "heaven" spelled backwards.
Not long before, Ne'Vaeh was diagnosed with a very rare type of Stage IV brain cancer called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. His pain and endless trips to the hospital were temporarily left behind as he became a temporary "pilot" in the Pilot for a Day program.
Pilot for a Day is conducted at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. Twice a year, the Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C., selects a terminally ill child to become a pilot for a day.
Thanks to funding and volunteers from the Check-6 Foundation, Ne'Vaeh and his family "flew" in an Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft simulator and enjoyed pilot-led tours of an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft, Air Force C-38 Courier aircraft and ate lunch aboard an Air Force C-40 Clipper aircraft.
The smiles and awe continued as they visited the control tower and fire department. There, Ne'Vaeh cruised around in a fire truck and fired the water cannon.
At the end of an activity-packed day, Ne'Vaeh was appointed a pilot wingman. This real-life pilot wasn't just Ne'Vaeh's wingman for the day, he's Ne'Vaeh's wingman for life.
Long after the Pilot for a Day program event ends, all appointed wingmen maintain contact with their assigned child and their family mainly to offer encouragement and resource support during these stressful and frightening times.
To provide the most impactful support possible, the Check-6 Foundation raised money to pay the Ne'Vaeh's family's mortgage for two months. The welcomed surprise helped ease their mounting financial burden caused by endless medical bills.
"These children have their own challenges and are heroes to us," says Check-6 founder and Pilot for a Day co-coordinator Lt. Col. Rob Balzano, 201st Airlift Squadron Operational Support Flight commander and C-40 instructor pilot.
"This isn't just [public relations] fodder, but long lasting," said Balzano. "They're not just a pilot for a day but they remain 'pilots for a lifetime' and are invited back for events such as the Joint Services Air Show ... their host pilot sends them birthday cards and holiday cards and stays in touch with them and their family."
Sadly, a few months after his pilot debut, Ne'vaeh lost his battle with cancer. Just a few weeks prior, the Check-6 Foundation was fortunate enough to fly Ne'Veah and instantly created a lasting bond.
Although several of the children who have participated in the Pilot for a Day program have passed on, Check-6 and the Pilot for a Day program continue carrying on the junior pilot's honor as the child's family remains a part of the community.
To help commemorate all of the Pilots for a Day the 113 Civil Engineer Squadron completed a Wall of Heroes at the 201 AS where a collage is displayed for each child. Fallen "pilots" are honored with a halo above the Pilot for a Day logo on their collage.
The Check-6 Foundation helps terminally ill children and military veterans in need. Check-6 raises funds for two programs: Pilot for a Day, which supports terminally ill children and their families and the Veteran Wingman Program, which helps veterans in need. They have recently announced a partnership with Progressive Insurance to pair up veterans that are in need of a vehicle through the Keys to Progress program.
In 2005, Lt. Col. Rob Balzano of the D.C. Air National Guard first volunteered for the Pilot for a Day Program at Joint Base Andrews where he was then flying F-16s as a member of the 121st Fighter Squadron. Moved by how the community and the ANG worked together supporting local kids and their families, he wanted to do more.
In 2006, Balzano created the Check-6 Foundation, which raises money for the Pilot for a Day program. Wanting to help local veterans, he also created the Veteran Wingman Program, also funded by Check-6.
The term "check 6" comes from the fighter pilot community where a flight lead and Wingman will check each other's 6 o'clock position, directly behind them, for the presence of any threat. In the spirit of this mutual support tactic, the Check-6 Foundation is taking care of the Pilot for a Day children and veterans with a "we've got your back" mission.
The Air Force, Air Reserve, Navy, Andrews Air Force Base Fire Hall and Federal Aviation Administration join the D.C. National Guard in hosting Pilot for a Day.
Check-6 holds several fundraising events throughout the year including: an annual fundraising golf tournament, the Air Force versus Navy Football Game Tailgate Fundraiser, every other year when played in Annapolis, Maryland, wine-tastings, and participation in the Combined Federal Campaign and various other fundraising platforms. The next fundraiser will be an inaugural clay shooting tournament on Nov. 7. They are even a featured charity in an upcoming multi-platform aerial combat video game called, "Wild Wings".
For more about The Check-6 Foundation and to provide donations, follow them on Twitter @Check6Fndation; visit: check6.org or facebook.com/check6foundation. You can also donate to the Check-6 Foundation as part of the CFC , Sept. 1 through Dec. 15, by going to CFCnca.org and entering #32760. For information about this and other programs, go to www.ready54.org, an organization dedicated to resiliency for the whole Guard family.