If you could provide comfort to a grieving person by taking him or her for an airplane ride, would you do it?
Jim Hesseman thinks you would. And, based on personal experience, he thinks you will get as much out of it as your passenger.
Hesseman is from Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently retired, and even more recently transplanted to Maryland. He’s one of the co-founders and lead advocate of White Feather Flights, an organization that aims to encourage general aviation pilots to help grieving families by taking them for airplane rides that will "celebrate a life with a flight.”
Much like Young Eagles flights or other similar programs, White Feather Flights pair pilots with people in their community. While the flights often serve as an introduction to flying in small airplanes, that is not their purpose. “White Feather Flights exists to honor the journey of grieving children, families, and individuals and to help them remember their loved one who has passed,” according to the organization website. Short flights culminate with the passenger or pilot releasing a white feather into the slipstream.
Hesseman said the first such unofficial flight took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 2007. The occasion drew inspiration from Dreams and Wings, a nonprofit organization that provides positive aviation experiences for children with physical challenges.
During an event coordinated with the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center, a mother and father approached Dreams and Wings volunteer pilot Ron Shamblin to ask for an airplane ride. Their youngest daughter, a leukemia patient, had flown in Shamblin’s Cessna 182 the previous year, and she had loved her adventure. Unfortunately, the child had died from her illness; her parents wanted to honor her memory and the joy of her flight.
“During the flight, the mother pulled out a big white feather decorated with the daughter’s name,” Hesseman said. “She asked if it would be possible to release it into the sky.”
The following year, four or five persons with similar requests approached pilots at a Dreams and Wing events. Dreams and Wings founder Jack Lewis recognized a growing need to provide grief support for these families, Hesseman said.
In 2009, Dreams and Wings and the UM Comprehensive Cancer Center sponsored the first White Feather Celebration in Ann Arbor, drawing some 30 families who had lost a loved one to cancer in the previous year. Taking flight with volunteer pilots, the families carried white feathers that had been decorated with special messages.
Hesseman flew to that gathering and, in 2010, helped to coordinate an event in Grand Rapids.
"What’s most gratifying is hearing what many had to say about the experience,” Hesseman wrote in a blog describing the event. Comments from children such as “I’m addicted! I want to do that again!” and “This is exactly what I needed—an adventure!” were not uncommon, he said. One 9-year-old said, “It made me feel like home. It made me remember my mom.”
Hesseman and Lewis would like to help pilots at airports around the nation coordinate their own White Feather Flights.
They created the White Feather Flights website to give pilots the tools to implement and host similar programs in their communities. The website includes a detailed information manual that can be downloaded free of charge, as well as a PowerPoint presentation, logos, and other free resources. The manual explains how to reach out to local grief support organizations and hospice groups that can connect pilots with families and individuals, as well as supply logistical, staff, and volunteer support for the event.
Corporate aviation departments and fixed-base operators can provide a hangar and other types of support, Hesseman said. The corporate aviation department of Steelcase, the Grand Rapids-based office furniture manufacturer, has hosted White Feather Flights events and is listed as a resource in the manual.
For more information, see the website.