RAF Lakenheath hosts "Pilot for a Day" program for ill child
RAF LAKENHEATH, England — It was the day before he was to turn 11, and Jack Driver was on his way to yet another doctor’s appointment, or so he thought.
On the way from his home in Ipswich to the hospital in Cambridge on Wednesday, Jack’s parents, James and Helen, made a detour toward RAF Lakenheath. Jack asked to spend a few minutes watching the aircraft — after all, he does want to be a pilot someday.
“We were a little early and told Jack we would stop to see if we could have a peek,” Helen said. “Jack’s been interested in planes for about two years. When he finds something he likes, he generally absorbs as much information about it as he can.”
But Jack had a bigger surprise waiting.
When they got to the base’s main entrance, U.S. Air Force Capt. Jason Bianchi, an F-15C Eagle pilot with the 493rd Fighter Squadron, greeted them and told Jack he would spend the day at the base as part of a “Pilot for a Day” program.
Jack said he isn’t often at a loss for words.
“I’ve always wanted to be a pilot, ever since I went to Bristol in 2010 to have a bone marrow transplant,” Jack explained. “Because everyone there is just plane nuts, because it’s the home of Rolls Royce jet engines, and it’s … home to Filton Air Base where they actually built Concorde.”
About three years ago, Jack was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder called Aplastic Anemia (also known as bone marrow failure). On Wednesday, he became the first participant at RAF Lakenheath in the “Pilot for a Day” program for youth suffering life-threatening health problems. Bianchi, a cancer survivor, spearheaded the program with funding from the Liam Fairhurst Foundation, a charity founded in the name of a young British cancer sufferer who raised hundreds of thousands of pounds to help other children like him before he died in 2009 at age 14.
Liam’s father, Mark, said in an email, the foundation was “proud to help support a wonderful scheme by the USAF (Jason Bianchi) that will give a special memory to many sick/ill children that will help them on their road to recovery.”
Bianchi escorted Jack and his family around base on a daylong tour that included hands-on activities for Jack and visits to supporting facilities of the 48th Fighter Wing.
“It’s important for seriously ill kids to just be a kid — not to think about doctors and hospitals,” said Bianchi, of Chicago, who hopes to host kids through the “Pilot for a Day” program every three months or so.
Jack changed into a specially sized flight suit and began his tour with a trip to the flight simulator.
“He shot down 10 enemy airplanes in the simulator and taught me a few things about the airplane,” Bianchi said.
Next, Jack visited a static display of an F-15 aircraft and HH-60 Pave Hawk used by the base’s 56th Rescue Squadron. He crawled throughout the two aircraft, learning everything he could about the cockpit, side-mounted weapons, external gas tanks and flight controls.
“He is amazing,” Bianchi explained. “His knowledge of aircraft is phenomenal.”
Jack met the base’s falconer and held some of the birds.
He visited the air-traffic control tower and radar house. He watched several planes take off from up in the tower, and within seconds of being shown the radar machine, located one of them, recognizing the pilot’s call sign.
The tour included a stop at the jet engine test facility, where Jack got to see, hear and feel jet power with full afterburner. He participated in an exercise held by the base fire department, and shot water from two truck-mounted water cannons to put out a controlled burn on a mock-up F-15 aircraft.
At the end of the day, Jack was awarded his pilot wings — a modified name badge with wings for his flight suit — by the 493rd Fighter Squadron commander, Lt. Col. Michael Casey. He had earned his wings.
“The word of the day is, awesome,” Jack said.