Jeff’s Story

“For this, kids come out of their wheelchairs.”

“I have always loved airplanes: the freedom, the views, the complete control. Look, flying an airplane is best job ever. After I graduated Stranahan High School I went to University of Florida. After college, I borrowed $2,700 from my stepfather and learned how to fly an airplane. At first I was a crop duster pilot in the Texas-Oklahoma area, then I graduated to a cargo pilot and eventually I became a captain with Southwest Airlines.

My life changed when an accident left me a quadriplegic and my career as an airplane pilot ended. I was disabled. For a while I pondered over the obvious… what now?

Then I learned that Challenge Air for Kids & Friends was looking for a disabled pilot to work with special needs kids. They had been around since 1993. The organization had inspiring taglines like “High above the clouds there is freedom.” and “Suddenly the impossible seems more probable.”

I found my niche. I got involved.

Here is how it works: the kids and their families meet us at the Banyan Air hangar at Executive Airport in Fort Lauderdale. Owners of the planes donate their airplanes and fuel; pilots donate flight time and skills. We use four-seater Learjets, restored planes, twin engine prop planes, corporate planes. The kids are referred to as co-pilots and come aboard with a parent and their choice of one other person. Over a dozen fly days are scheduled every year.

A pilot takes them to 1,500 feet and teaches them about the plane, shows them what it feels like to turn right, what it feels like to turn left, what the hand controls do. We let the co-pilots do some of the flying and communicate to the control tower. Their flight takes about a half hour and goes over the ocean then over the everglades. What is incredible to me is seeing how this helps these kids eliminate the belief that they are limited. After all, if you can fly a plane, you can do anything.

Kids come out of their wheelchairs to be co-pilots. We have kids with spinal cord injuries, deaf kids, kids with physical and emotional challenges, cancer kids, a dwarf who flew with leg extensions. Through seeing their resiliency and I am reminded of my own. I feel fulfilled when I see their confidence blossom.

I am on the board of directors of Challenge Air now. I use my degree in aviation management to do some of the administrative work. I am one of the members who gets donations to keep Challenge Air going. We always need computers, flight time and money. I enjoy spending time with the families of these kids too. Often we go to hockey and baseball games and go out as a group to restaurants.

I always have Finley, my service dog, with me. The kids see how having a dog is a magnet for making friends. I like to show them how Finley can compensate for a disability. He can retrieve the remote control if I drop it, he can get my car keys and he can respond to 50 commands.

A service dog is a constant loyal companion. Through Finley, I have been able to show the kids and their families that instead of being the kid with a disability, they are the kid with the cool dog.

Finley was trained and given to me by Canine Companions for Independence, another non-profit I am involved with. Anheuser Busch and Sea World sponsor Canine Companions for Indepedence.

Both Challenge Air and Canine Companions for Independence have been around for a while. Through my connection with both groups, my life has meaning and purpose and I help others to have the same.”

Jeff’s Treasures

“The wood replica of an airplane gear shift was a recognition from the Rotary Club.

The stone buddha sculpture always reminds me of what is important in life.

The bronze bull is like the one on Wall Street, a reminder to always keep an eye on investments.

I always carry my University of Florida cellphone strap and phone because I’m a proud Gator.”

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