Wind Beneath Their Wings

Support from family, friends, and AOPA help realize the dream of flight

June 1, 2013

Jim Rollison and his father Jimmy Rollison in front of their Beech Staggerwing. Jim soloed a Taylorcraft on his sixteenth birthday.

The robust young pilot who stands with his father and their aircraft in this photo is not as he seems. Although he is an extremely healthy 18-year-old, Jim Rollison has a genetic heart defect and, without the attention of some doctors throughout his life, he might not be here.

It’s a nightmare no parent should ever face: a child with a life-threatening condition. Worse yet, this condition requires more surgery as the child grows. Jim’s first surgery was at two weeks old. The second was at age 4. During his third surgery at age 11, his father was buying coffee for the hospital nurses at a local Starbucks. A firefighter asked him why he was buying so many cups of coffee. When Jimmy Rollison told him his son was in his third open-heart surgery for aortic coarctation, the firefighter responded: “Oh, you’re a lucky man.”

“Lucky?” Rollison asked him. “How did he think I was lucky when my 11-year-old son was having open-heart surgery?”

“We get one call a year to a high school basketball court for a player down of an apparent heart attack,” the responder said. “We call the coroner before we leave the station because it is usually fatal—because of a misdiagnosed aortic coarctation.”

•••

Jim Bennon co-owns a Cessna Skymaster with his doctor, Scott Strickler—it’s based at the Parkersburg, West Virginia, airport, where Bennon’s father was airport manager for more than 20 years (Bennon has applied for the position).

For for Jim Bennon, his earliest memory is sitting on his father’s lap in a J–3 Cub while his father let him hold the stick. His father was a flight instructor during World War II and later manager of the airport in Parkersburg, West Virginia; his uncle was a career pilot. Bennon was surrounded by aviation growing up and assumed that he’d become a pilot, too. But at age 11 he developed diabetes—his doctors thought it was caused by strep throat, during which the infection attacked his pancreas.

The young boy put his aviation dreams aside and lived a life without wings. But at age 53, his health had deteriorated and he faced end-stage renal disease. His doctor told him his best hope was a kidney transplant. His son Chris was a match and the successful transplant took place in 2006.

In the small town of Parkersburg, most people knew Bennon had always wanted to fly. His doctors knew that, too. And, as a team, they and Bennon’s aviation medical examiner, Todd Fredricks, M.D., began the process of helping him realize that dream. Today, Bennon is a partner in a Cessna Skymaster with his doctor, has logged 500 hours, and is working on his multiengine instrument rating.

This tale of two Jims (three if you count Jim Rollison’s dad, Jimmy) has one common denominator. Her name is Jo Ann.

•••

In 1983, a lawyer named John Yodice was working for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Bethesda, Maryland. He proposed that the association could help its members by assisting them with legal representation for their aviation-related problems. The AOPA Legal Services plan grew over the past 30 years to represent more than 70,000 members and today is a critical part of AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services, which also offers help for members with medical certification issues.

Bennon and his son, Chris, are flanked by his “team”: Dr. Frank Schwartz, Dr. Todd Fredricks, Strickler, and CFII Mike Knopp.

AOPA’s Pilot Protection Services provides proactive tips and advice from AOPA’s legal and medical consultants to help members avoid problems with the FAA. PPS combines the best of AOPA’s previous medical program and AOPA’s Legal Services Plan to help members protect both their medical and pilot certificates. The program is designed to meet the needs of pilots, and starts at $39 a year.

The PPS legal and medical professionals are often pilots, too. They understand member issues, and they know how to work with the FAA. They know what it takes to keep members flying. Members receive one-on-one legal advice, potentially worth thousands of dollars; fast, professional action on medical and pilot certificate questions and issues; and tips and advice from attorneys and medical experts to help members stay healthy, fly smarter, and avoid any problems with the FAA in the first place.

•••

When Jimmy Rollison wanted to help his young son realize his dream to eventually become a pilot, and when Jim Bennon’s doctors wanted their patient to realize his dream to fly, they met Jo Ann. Jo Ann Wilson is the senior medical certification specialist for AOPA Pilot Protection Services. A former nursing student, emergency room and doctor’s assistant, and founding member of the local Elder Services Provider Council, she has worked for AOPA for 19 years.

“If you ever go into the AOPA offices on a dark day and there’s a bright light, it means Jo Ann is there,” says Jimmy Rollison.

The Rollisons are an aviation family. Jimmy flies an MD-10 cargo jet for FedEx. The family lives in Vacaville, California, and keeps aircraft like most suburban families have bicycles. When their son was born in 1994, doctors told the couple they’d need to consider becoming a one-career family—young Jim was going to need a lot of attention. And his father knew that if his son ever expressed an interest in flying, he’d have an uphill battle.

The older Rollison began that battle as soon as Jim expressed the inevitable desire to become a pilot. He became a CFI so he could teach his son to fly. On his fourteenth birthday, Jim soloed a glider. If he was to get a private certificate—and this aviation family wanted that to happen on Jim’s sixteenth birthday, just like his dad before him—Jim’s doctor, Leroy Brown, suggested a call to AOPA.

Wilson’s response was to tell the family to give her every piece of documentation she asked for. Rollison didn’t have great hope. But as the months and work progressed, Wilson seemed to get them closer and closer to their goal. On the Friday before his son’s birthday, Rollison saw the AOPA phone number come up on his cellphone. He was taxiing out in the MD-10—he’d forgotten to silence his phone—and thought This is bad; it’s a bad time of day and it’s a Friday.

But the message Wilson left and the news she later gave was amazing. “I have my son’s medical certificate in my hand,” Rollison said through tears. “I never thought it would happen.

Jim Bennon—who is now the airport manager at Parkersburg, like his father before him—is also now an aviator just like his friends and family, even though it didn’t happen until he was 58 years old. “I’d given up on it,” he admits. “But with my doctors, my family, and AOPA, I got over the hump.”

Email julie.walker@aopa.org.

For more information on AOPA Pilot Protection Services, visit the website.

30 years of service

AOPA Pilot Protection Services began 30 years ago with the launch of the AOPA Legal Services Plan. “It all started because we are trying to help pilots,” says AOPA Legal Counsel John S. Yodice. “We wanted a plan that would have the wherewithal to fight the FAA. It was a success from day one. It is designed to be a member benefit—we wanted to give something back.”

Julie Summers Walker

Julie Summers Walker | AOPA Director of Publications, Managing Editor for 'AOPA Pilot' and 'Flight Training'

AOPA Director of Publications and Managing Editor for AOPA Pilot and Flight Training, Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.