Lifting Young Spirits

Challenge Air

February 1, 2001

In memory of a can-do man

Few have experienced the gray area of aviation — the haunting feeling of being caught somewhere between life and death, and returning, just barely, with the mind intact but with a body that doesn't function as it once did. It doesn't seem fair, but once the anger subsides, there's a new sense of contentness and a feeling of mission. That's why, though disabled, they take wing again.

Charity flying has its circle of pilots who have horrific stories to tell. One of them was Rick Amber, who — at the age of 26 — survived two crashes in the same day. He believed that every disabled person should see the world from a different perspective; out of their wheelchairs and crutches and from the sky. But before he founded Challenge Air for Kids & Friends, an organization that takes disabled children aloft, there was a series of events that led to an eclectic coalescence of mind and body, all rooted in the Vietnam War.

In 1971, Amber was returning to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Hancock in an F-8 Crusader on his 109th mission. When the ship's landing system failed in high seas, the airplane landed short and erupted in a fireball. Amber ejected and his parachute popped, but he became entangled in the ship's mast, breaking his neck. After he was cut down, he was loaded onto a medical helicopter. On the approach to a hospital ship in a rainstorm, the helicopter clipped the side of a mountain, but it was somehow able to limp to the ship.

After a long recovery effort, Amber returned to his home state of Texas in a wheelchair. His best friend Sonny Friedman remembers one pivotal night at dinner in Dallas when Amber laid down the law about his condition. "I don't like the way you're looking at me," Amber said to Friedman's wife. From then on it was apparent that the fighter-pilot attitude, fostered at the Naval Academy, had not gone away with the use of his legs. "He never stopped being a fighter pilot — 'you think you can beat me, just get on my six [o'clock],'" Friedman, who now serves as an officer for Challenge Air, summed it up.

From his new vantage point at three feet above the ground, Amber would go through a transformation and realize what he could do with his mind alone, from earning a master's degree in environment-al science at the University of Texas to a bachelor's of fine arts degree in video production from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He worked in the chemical industry, ran a cable access studio, and taught at the high school and college levels. But soon he would be drawn back to the airport, first as a ground instructor in exchange for flying hours he needed to become a CFI.

Amber also excelled at wheelchair tennis and won the U.S. Open in the men's singles division in 1993. He was proud of being able to lift himself in and out of the airplane and rode a sidecar-equipped motorcycle. As a tennis instructor and schoolteacher, he began to realize that he could share his love of flying with "kids on wheels." He invited a small group of physically challenged children to Addison Airport in Dallas and took them flying over the skyline. It was a huge success. Aviation had a way of selling itself.

In 1993, Amber bought a Cessna 177B Cardinal and the not-for-profit Challenge Air organization was born. Named Crusader after the jet he flew in the war, the airplane was well-suited for the missions: It had large doors, excellent visibility, high wings, no struts, and overhead pull handles. Amber soon found himself flying thousands of children with special needs throughout the country.

Before the children fly they go through ground school to learn about basic aerodynamics and obtain boarding passes. After the flights they receive EAA Young Eagles certificates. Challenge Air does all this at no cost to families; the money for the flights comes from donations. The pilots like to put the children in the right seat and place family members in the rear seats so that they, too, can see their children take the controls, a kind of two-way therapy. It's easy to know when they're in the pattern; they use call signs such as "Kid 1" and "Kid 2."

Last April, Jeff Shaffner was flying his Cardinal through the busy airspace near Frederick, Maryland. Challenge Air pilots have to be better than most because they can't afford a mistake. Shaffner, from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a Southwest Airlines captain until he injured his spinal cord in a parasailing accident. In 1993, with his airline career over, he left law school and decided to fly for Challenge Air. "I feel like I'm doing what I ought to be doing. This is the message from above that puts me into this environment. I'm as happy as I've ever been," he said, as his nursing assistant was handing him lunch in the cockpit between flights.

Speaking of Maryland, Shaffner recalled one particular flight in Annapolis where he took up a boy who had cerebral palsy. The boy couldn't talk and was in a wheelchair, but when he got in the air he shrieked with happiness. Back on the ground when volunteers were helping him in the wheelchair, he looked at Shaffner sideways. "And when his eyes met my eyes, a big smile went across his face. I knew I had gotten through to him. What a beautiful memory," he said.

The memory highlights an important point. In the world of charity flying, there's an image that occurs on the flight line and gets permanently etched in the consciousness; it's called "that smile," and Shaffner has seen it plenty of times. All the children have it when they return from a flight. One who had that smile was a 12-year-old blind girl named Amber who flew with Challenge Air in Houston. Her parents said she is normal in every way except for her eyesight. One of her favorite songs is "I Believe I Can Fly" from the Space Jam movie soundtrack. For a long time she had been asking her parents if she could fly in an airplane, and they kept telling her "one of these days." On one of those days she finally got her chance, and when she landed she had that smile; the flight was all she talked about for two days. Despite her blindness, she, too, said she wants to be a pilot. Her parents, meanwhile, pray for a cure.

Challenge Air also has a way of boosting self-esteem. When a wheelchair-bound girl named Jenni took a flight, it changed her life. "After the trip she told us she never would have imagined anyone would have ever given her the controls and allowed her to really fly an airplane," read a letter from her parents. "By your example you have allowed her to dream bigger dreams and imagine new possibilities for her future." And there are the little things, the soft gestures, the slight changes in behavior that, perhaps, only parents can see. When a 7-year-old autistic boy, almost totally nonverbal, went flying in Texas, he started softly singing "I'm a little black rain cloud" from a Winnie-the-Pooh video.

Amber's message has continued to spread outward from Dallas, where Challenge Air is headquartered and run by Executive Director Lonna Harris. In the past seven years, more than 130 events took place in 21 states and more than 10,000 children have experienced flight. Three-time U.S. aerobatic champion Patty Wagstaff signed on as the organization's spokeswoman. And Challenge Air has hired full-time staff members. One of them is Theron Wright (pictured on page 65), whose dreams of becoming a professional pilot were shattered in 1994 after he became paralyzed in a work-related accident when he was 23. He first heard of Amber three months after his accident when he read a newspaper story about the group. After attending an event in Tulsa, Wright was encouraged to get his commercial certificate and fly for Challenge Air. Today, he serves as the organization's chief pilot and plans to fly around the world in a Cardinal in 2002 — along with Gary Ryan of Houston, who has polio. "We're always looking for new challenges," Wright said.

Other pilots for Challenge Air include Joe Dawson, who was an Air Force officer until polio forced him to take a medical discharge. He's paralyzed from the waist down and walks with the aid of leg braces and crutches. Dawson has 5,000 hours and flies a Cardinal. Jack Lewis is a paraplegic pilot who organizes events on his home turf in the Michigan area. He flies a specially equipped Piper Warrior named Lovebird . Challenge Air also relies heavily on the more than 200 members of the International Wheelchair Aviators and other groups.

If there is a common theme running through the organization and the work it does, it's Amber's can-do attitude, despite incredibly long odds. Shaffner once was approached by a little boy who said he couldn't fly because he couldn't use his legs. But Shaffner quickly proved him wrong by sending the obvious message: A disabled person can fly, even though he has less ability to compensate for crosswinds with hand controls.

Challenge Air also celebrates a man who was never afraid of taking chances. In 1996, Amber broke a leg in a tandem skydiving accident, and it was then that tests revealed he had cancer of the bladder. The disease spread throughout his body and began to eat him up. He was kept alive by blood transfusions.

Ex-fighter pilots who flew with Amber stopped by to visit him as he neared death. On May 3, 1997, he spent his last day in a coma surrounded by friends and family members, but before he passed on he put his fist on his chest as if he were saying goodbye, Friedman said. At the memorial service there was a military fly-by, and on his headstone were an anchor and a Jewish star. Now Challenge Air is guided by his dying wish, after his life was changed forever off the coast of Vietnam, to "keep it going for the kids."

Links to more information about Challenge Air may be found on AOPA Online ( E-mail the author at [email protected].