Pilot for A Day program continues at 560th Flying Training Squadron

  • Published
  • Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph Public Affairs

The 560th Flying Training Squadron welcomed its newest pilot, as part of the “Pilot for A Day” program July 17 at JBSA-Randolph.

Jared Stadler, became a pilot and joined the ranks of the 560th FTS “Chargin’ Cheetahs,” thanks to a program started more than 20 years ago by former Capt. Rory Blackburn and his wife, Shelley.

Jared, who is the son of Army Capt. Tim and Megan Stadler is 15 years old and has a brain tumor. He attends Cole High School at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston, where his father is stationed.

“It’s really good that they let me do this because they don’t have to,” Jared said. “I feel really good I am very excited because I love to see airplanes fly by and today I get to see real pilots in person.”

The program began in December 1994, when the Blackburns started the “Pilot for A Day” program at JBSA-Randolph.

“It gives the kids an opportunity to get away from the hospital and see what it’s like to be a pilot,” Lt. Col. Joel DeBoer, 560th FTS commander, said. “It’s to provide them hope, encouragement and smiles, in a time when they are struggling and down. We show them what it’s like to be a pilot, show them the aircraft, the simulators and ride on the fire truck. It’s about building them up and encouraging them.”

The program evolved on its own as instructor pilots and student pilots left the 560th FTS and went on to other duty stations and carried on the tradition for children in other states.

“I was not flying an F-16 anymore, I was here with Shelley in surgery for the 18th time and my life was in turmoil,” Blackburn said. “Then I saw a little kid pulling a pole, his butt sticking out and an IV underneath his gown and he had a shaved head. They were several kids there and I felt like they were being cheated.

“How could I feel sorry for myself, my heart went out to them,” he recalled as he briefed Maj. Cheryl Buehn, current “Pilot for A Day” program coordinator. “These children usually spend more time in the hospital than with their peers or families.”

It was a difficult time for Blackburn and his family as his wife was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, so they decided to create a program to help young patients afflicted with catastrophic illness.

The program is for children of all ages with chronic conditions invited to be guests of a flying squadron and spend an entire day as a pilot with the goal of giving them a break from the challenges that they typically face day-to-day.

“It’s great to just watch him not have to worry about anything else going on and just be a 15-year-old and be wowed by things not thinking about chemo,” Tim Stadler, Jared’s father said. “We all go through things like this in life and he takes it like just another day, it puts things into perspective. Like when you get down because your sports team lost or being 10 pounds overweight, it seems irrelevant.”

The day for the new pilot starts out when a member of the squadron meets the child and the family at the visitor center and escorts them to the squadron for a breakfast reception hosted by the squadron’s pilots and their spouses. 

“He gets a flight suit and patches, and during pilot call he’s introduced to other pilots as one of the pilots,” Maj. Michael Granberry, former “Pilot for A Day” organizer, said.

The first stop on the tour is at the life support section.  “NCOs assigned here give the pilots the necessary survival training required to handle an ejection from the aircraft,” DeBoer said. “This training includes seat operation procedures as well as how to survive in the local area.”

Following the life support section, decked out in his flight suit, the child goes out to the flight line to get a closer look at a T-38, T-1 and T- 6.

The aircraft is even personalized with the name of the “Pilot for A Day” on the side of the aircraft.   The new pilot is also given the opportunity to sit inside the jet.

“This is such an amazing program that all at JBSA-Randolph are a part of,” Buehn said. “It is a very special day for Jared as he is hopefully removed from focusing on the treatments and given the chance to be a kid living out his dream for the day. We appreciate all that the JBSA community has done to make this day special.”

In addition, “Pilots for A Day,” also get a closer look at the control tower, fire department, aircraft simulators, an even a tour of Randolph’s Taj.

The majority of the young pilots have their photos hanging on the walls at the 560th Flying Training Squadron.To date, more than 100 children have been “Pilots for A Day.”

“The 560th has a very rich history from World War II to Vietnam to present day,” DeBoer said. “The Freedom Flyers and POWs are part of our history and so is ‘Pilot for A Day.’  On our wall you see those pictures and see those kids’ smiles, I wanted to ensure that, that piece of our history is preserved and continued because I think it’s an honorable and deserved, just course. It’s a small way we can make an impact in a kid’s life and help our community. If we can help take away the child’s struggle with their sickness then it was worth it.”