“I want to go again!” 11-year-old Haydyn Rhodes yelled into the airplane’s headset as the plane began its final descent.
He was one of more than 20 mentally or physically disabled children who were given free rides in five small airplanes at the Angelina County Airport on Saturday. Haydyn went on the first flight with his grandpa Lewis Rhodes in Mark Dunn’s four-passenger airplane.
“You know about T-rex’s?” Dunn asked Haydyn. “I call mine a V-rex because the wings on the back are in a ‘V’ shape.”
Within the first 10 minutes of the ride, Dunn moved flight controls to Haydyn and let him take on the plane itself. While Dunn did leave autopilot on at that point, his goal was to let Haydyn experience something new and cool that he could take back to school or church and be proud of, Dunn said.
Through the coordination of the airport, the Flying Vikings, Timber Creek Church and Hudson High School, they were able to put together the event, Dunn said. Dunn realized the need for more amenities for special needs children in the area and wanted to do what he could to give them something, he said.
Dunn works with the Young Eagles organization, which allows students to explore an aviation career path through the Experimental Aircraft Association.
“It’s just to introduce kids to flight,” he said.
Dunn’s wife introduced him to the Flying Vikings by giving him a pamphlet while he was in College Station visiting family. After his first flight with an 8-year-old named Jake, Dunn was hooked.
“Jake stuck with me and we went back to the plane and took it out for a while,” Dunn said. “It stuck a hook in my mouth.”
A few weeks after the flight, he received a letter from Jake’s mom and she said that Jake hadn’t been able to stop talking about flying. Jake sent Dunn two crayon drawings of them next to an airplane.
He said this experience made him want to bring it to Lufkin. So he worked with Paul Hansen, the president and CEO of Flying Vikings, to get the event off the ground. It took three tries to get it up and moving; the first two were put off because of bad weather, Hansen said.
“Third time’s a charm, I guess,” Hansen said. “This was supposed to be happening months and months ago. But the thing with the program, like Mark said, is I’ve got kids who are running cross country, doing agriculture stuff, doing vet tech and all types of things at school. You look at special needs kids and it’s school then home.”
He targets children who are chronically ill or physically disabled — they’ll work with kids fighting cancer, cerebral palsy or a multitude of other hindrances and let them enjoy something cool and unique.
“Now they can say, ‘I can’t walk, climb a tree, ride a bike or play football, but I flew a plane,’” he said. “That’s a little bit more kudos in my eyes.”
Myles Cantu is 4 years old and has high functioning autism and sensory processing disorder. He was surprised by his dad, Chris, on Saturday morning when he learned he was going to get to fly in an airplane — he loves airplanes, his dad said.
“This is amazing for him,” Cantu said. “I had to wait until this morning to tell him about it because with him, he thinks it has to happen right now. But all morning long he has been grinning from ear to ear.”
Waving his arms in the air, yelling, “Wooo, woooo, whoosh” he explained just how the airplane would fly him in a little bit. After his flight, he gave another explanation of just how it went, saying they went “whoosh and up and wee” while doing the movements with his arms and a small wooden airplane of his own.
“It’s super fun to go like that and that and woo woo,” he said.
The organization hopes to do this at least annually, Dunn said. They’re hoping to have it run again around the same time as the airshow next year, he said.