In the hazy heat of Tuesday morning, four tiny passenger planes touched down one after another on a runway in Helena. Climbing out of the planes came a troop of young cancer survivors, each chosen to participate in a camp that teaches survivors how to fly. The participants will spend this week learning how to operate airplanes, having mini-adventures along the way.
The program, which is in its fifth year, is hosted by Summit Aviation in Bozeman, and Eagle Mount, an organization dedicated to hosting adventures for people with disabilities and young people with cancer. Together, they bring people from across the nation to participate. This year, participants have traveled from Anaconda; Pana, Illinois; and Silverton, Colorado.
When they’re not learning how to fly, touring Bozeman International Airport facilities, or taking flights, the participants are getting out into the community to experience Montana. Upon touching down in Helena, they were met by a 1987 Lincoln Town Car, which camper Graham Tredwell eagerly volunteered to drive to Hub Coffee.
“I’ve been around aviation like my whole life. It’s always been in the back of my head,” Tredwell said, gripping the leather steering wheel. “So I figured, well, I’m 26, I’ve already had cancer, I might as well learn how to fly planes too. If I don’t do it now, I don’t know if I’ll ever do it.”
From the passenger seat, flight instructor Evan Schwarzenbach shouted his encouragement.
“You’re doin' it, man! And you’re driving a Lincoln. That’s a double whammy right there,” Schwarzenbach said.
Funded by donations from local and national private sponsors, the program gives a holistic approach to learning the trade, and allows participants to explore different aspects of flight training. According to president of Summit Aviation Ben Walton, their morning flights and tours of air control towers, emergency response operations and private jets make the program different than the traditional means of learning to fly.
This approach to flight school gives them an experience that many people don’t get to have. Sometimes students return to Summit Aviation for a full flight training, but for most, it's just an empowering, once-in-a-lifetime endeavor.
“By the end, most of them can take off and land unassisted,” Walton said. “It’s kind of an empowering thing. They’ve lived this life that’s different than everyone else’s, and maybe they don’t know what to do next. So it’s a neat thing. They fly the airplane the whole time, and they’re talking to each other on the radio and it’s awesome.”
The participants have come up with radio names for themselves, including Hot Rod Lincoln, Rocket Man and Roosevelt, by which they address each other while talking over the radio. They laughed over their new pseudonyms in the ride downtown in the sweltering Lincoln, checking out Helena through rolled-down windows.
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Emily Kuhn, 17, traveled from Pana, Illinois to take part in the flight camp, but has been to Montana a few times through previous Eagle Mount camps. Kuhn was diagnosed with aplastic anemia in 2013, which caused her bone marrow to stop making platelets and red blood cells.
She sees excursions like this as a way of giving cancer survivors experiences that they may not otherwise get to have.
“People who come to this camp are people who have been through a lot, and have seen a lot of trial in their life,” Kuhn said. “Not many people experience trial like that as young people, so I think it’s really important that we counteract that with all these great experiences that we get to have. It’s amazing and eye-opening to see so much more than four walls of a hospital.”
Through a camp with Eagle Mount, Kuhn met and formed a friendship with Bret Walund, 19, a cancer survivor from nearby Anaconda. Walund has been involved with Eagle Mount since age 6 or 7, and was encouraged to enroll in the flight camp after being recognized as an outstanding camper.
“The main reason why I wanted to come was just because I believed that it would be a lot of fun, and it turned out that it is a whole lot of fun — even more than I had anticipated,” Walund said. “I still can’t believe that this is just my second day here. It’s amazing.”
Kara Erickson is the Big Sky Kids director at Eagle Mount, and helps coordinate activities for the campers after flight training finishes every afternoon, each of which is donated by the respective location. Monday afternoon included a trip to Norris Hot Springs, and Tuesday brought a tour of the Museum of the Rockies.
Because one camper wasn’t feeling well, Erickson was able to take her place on the Tuesday morning flight.
“It’s really great that I get to come along and fly, but even cooler for me to watch is just what this program does for people who have been through so much and deserve this experience,” Erickson said. “Even though everyone flies on airlines these days and it’s common in our lives, actually controlling a small airplane is liberating. Because a lot of our participants have faced significant challenges, and some of them still have significant limitations and challenges in their lives, it allows them the freedom to fly.”
According to Erickson, the participants have become more comfortable and confident during the past two days of camp alone. They have started bonding through their trials and tribulations, and have embraced the camp and the circumstances that brought them together.
“These people are able to see the silver lining of what they’ve gone through, which is maybe the most inspiring thing ever,” Erickson said.