Guard, Reserve Team Up to Make Child ‘Pilot for a Day’
By Senior Airman Amaani Lyle, USAF
Special to American Forces Press Service
ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md., Nov. 2, 2006 When Michael Ogunjimi was in third grade, he won a regional essay contest with a submission titled “I Love Life and I Want to Live.”
Michael Ogunjimi, 10, of Washington, D.C., joins Air Force Reserve Capt. Scott Clark, 756th Air Refueling Squadron pilot, to salute from the wing of a KC-135 Stratotanker Oct. 27. The 459th Air Refueling Wing and the District of Columbia Air National Guard 113th Wing teamed up to host the "Pilot for a Day" program. "P4D" is a community outreach program that allows military and civilian children of all ages who suffer from serious or chronic medical conditions to visit an installation for a day. Photo by Senior Airman Amaani Lyle, USAF
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Two years later, the 10-year-old Washington, D.C., honor roll student continues to fight every day to make good on his essay’s assertion.
Michael is a Truesdell Elementary School student and a patient at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. On any given day, Michael faces fatigue, discomfort or complications stemming from sickle cell disease, liver enlargement, lung disease and restrictive cardiomyopathy, a condition in which the lower heart chamber walls become too rigid to allow proper blood circulation. Twice every day, Michael must use a machine to help him breathe.
Through coordination among the Air Force Reserve Command’s 459th Air Refueling Wing, the District of Columbia Air National Guard’s 113th Wing and the medical center, also known as Children’s Hospital, Michael’s status temporarily changed from patient to “Pilot for a Day” as part of a program here Oct. 27.
“Pilot for a Day has been a dream come true for Michael,” said his father, Rev. Stephen Ogunjimi. “This whole experience has had such a positive impact on his healing process.”
Pilot for a Day, or “P4D,” is a community outreach program that allows military and civilian children of all ages who suffer from serious or chronic medical conditions to visit an installation for a day to tour facilities. The original P4D program began at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, in December 1994 and has since spread to numerous bases across the country.
P4D arrived here at the behest of the 113th Wing and the unit’s team leader, Air National Guard Capt. Susanne Schulz.
“Captain Schulz and I plan to alternate the lead in hosting P4D here every six months and make this an ongoing total force effort for the community,” Air Force Reserve Capt. Scott Clark, a KC-135 Stratotanker pilot with 756th Air Refueling Squadron, said.
The behind-the-scenes coordination leads to rewarding results: big smiles and an all-day pass to childhood joy.
“Wow, this is so awesome,” Michael erupted as he and his friend, Alphonso, scampered through a KC-135 cargo plane’s fuselage.
Dressed in a flight suit, Michael absorbed bite-size lessons about the plane’s various instruments as he shadowed Clark.
“I could instantly tell that Michael and his family were very caring and loving people,” Clark said. “This has been more than a one-day connection for me. … I’ve definitely developed a friendship with the Ogunjimis, and we plan to stay in touch.”
Clark said P4D participants who come here are invited to return for an annual reunion at the Andrews Air Force Base air show in May. Depending on Michael’s level of tolerance during that time, he and his family will likely attend, Reverend Ogunjimi said.
Ogunjimi described, in a literal sense, his son’s journey to recovery. A Nigerian missionary, Ogunjimi said he’s been living in the United States for more than 20 years, though it was only upon confirming his stateside citizenship 10 years ago that he moved his wife and children here from West Africa. While his missionary work frequently takes him to Africa, Europe and other far reaches of the world, Ogunjimi said he was inclined to make Washington his home base to be near the medical team that has cared for Michael since his diagnosis at age 11 months.
“The Children’s Hospital doctors and nurses have worked tirelessly with Michael and have consulted with just about every known medical facility in the world to help treat his condition,” Ogunjimi said.
The research into Michael’s condition is ongoing, but the family’s connection with wing members here seemed instant.
Air Force Lt. Col. Al Lupenski, 459th Operations Group deputy commander, administered the “pilot’s oath” just before Michael toured an Air Guard F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet static display and an Air Force Reserve KC-135 Stratotanker. Michael’s busy day included interaction with pilots, maintenance crew, the fire department, the police department and air traffic control. As the day wound down, hugs abounded and various wing members showered Michael with gifts.
“When Michael and his father thanked us, it was all everyone in the room could do to keep from breaking down,” Lupenski said. “It was a very emotional day for us.”
The elder Ogunjimi said faith and Michael’s perseverance tempers his family’s emotions. “Michael is naturally a strong boy,” he said. “He has very high expectations of himself, and I believe that nothing will keep him from his dreams.”
At other bases, P4D-eligible children have been designated through the Ronald McDonald House, Tu Nidito, and base personnel. The program is not restricted to children with any specific illness or disease and is not limited to terminal children, but does focus on young patients with catastrophic diseases such as cancer, sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, and cystic fibrosis.
(Air Force Senior Airman Amaani Lyle is assigned to the 459th Air Refueling Wing.)