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Joint Base Andrews Features

NEWS | May 27, 2008

Pilot for a Day

By Lt. Col. Catherine Reardon 316th Wing chief of Public Affairs

"Today is the best day of my entire life," said Brandon Leach, as he drove along the flightline here last Friday. It was a cold and dreary day but to the 5 year-old with Mitochondrial Disease it was an awesome experience seeing all the aircraft, tanks, trucks and equipment as we moved down the ramp. Little did he know the "bestest" day was just beginning.

First on the VIP visit was a personal tour of the 1st Helicopter Squadron. The 1 HS squadron commander, Lt. Col. Don Snyder, greeted Brandon and his mom, Susan and dad, Rick. The group moved to the hanger to see a UH-1N helicopter where Brandon grilled 1st Lt Mike Ryan on the cockpit set-up and even asked about air displacement.

The lieutenant realized that Brandon was "out of uniform" and took him to life support where, the young "Pilot for a Day," found his locker with his flightsuit, helmet bag and Friday casual blue t-shirt ready to wear. It didn't take long for Brandon to change into his pilot gear and then return to the aircraft for some photos.

When it was time to leave the 1 HS, the young pilot thanked everyone saying, "This is the best day of my life!" Again, little did the VIP know that his day was not over yet.

The next stop on the tour was at the F-22A. Major Max Moga, F-22A demo pilot, and Brandon quickly hit it off and soon they were discussing the idiosyncrasies of F-22A as they sat together in the cockpit of the Air Force's most advanced fighter. At the end of the visit, Max promised to wiggle his wings for Brandon during his demonstration flight. Brandon hugged Max and told him, "This is the best day of my life." However, it wasn't over yet.

Lunch and a rest break were the next order of business. Brandon's illness attacks the "powerhouse" mitochondria in the cells of his body and doesn't allow food to be turned into energy. During lunch, Brandon watched aircraft flying as he munched on his food and casually gave an interview to WUSA-9, a local television station. As soon as Mom gave the go-ahead, Brandon was ready to get on with the tour.

Like a true DV, Brandon saw something along the way that he just had to see....a Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter. There, Petty Officer 2nd Class Tye Conklin hoisted him into a harness just as the Coast Guard would do during a water rescue. Brandon gave the news reporter a few more sound bites before thanking the helicopter crew for "the best day ever."

Back on his itinerary, the next stop was the 457th Airlift Squadron, where Lt. Col. Chris Fuller, operations officer showed Brandon a C-21 on static display. He continued his interview with WUSA-9 now showing off his newly acquired squadron scarf, patch and coin. He didn't leave before thanking the crew for "the best day of my life."

The final stop on the VIP tour was at the Delta Airlines 757 on display for the airshow. When Brandon and his crew arrived though, the Delta captain was nowhere to be found so flight attendant, Elizabeth Reardon, made Brandon the captain of the plane when she gave him a Delta captain's hat and wings. Brandon was quick to get into the cockpit of his 757 so he could get a good look around. The real aircraft captain, Jerry Brilliant, arrived within a few minutes and Brandon spent 35 minutes discussing how the aircraft works and how cool it is to have flight attendants bring you cookies during the flight.

When it was time to depart the 757, there was a message for Brandon from the Blue Angels. They wanted to meet the three-foot pilot who was stealing the show. Brandon thanked the Delta crew telling them, "This is the best day ever."

By now, the weather was getting cold and windy and Brandon had already done more than he normally does in a day. His energy was beginning to wane, but he when he met the Blue Angels he was all about the aircraft, asking questions and telling them they looked cool in the air!

When the tour ended, I asked Brandon what was the best part of the day. Was it the F-22A, UH-1N, C-21, 757? "The best part of the day was that this is the 'bestest' day of my life ever," he said. For me too.