Kids with special needs to earn their wings on city's first Fly Day

Kids with special needs are often told what they can't do, but this weekend, volunteer pilots with Challenge Air will erase those perceived limitations by showing them something they can do: fly.

On Saturday, May 20, the Texas-based nonprofit is hosting its first local Fly Day at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport.

The event will take more than 50 local kids and young adults with physical or intellectual disabilities on a 30-minute flight in a general aviation plane. Each participant will sit up front with the pilot, and once the plane is in the air, he or she will get a chance to take hold of the control wheel and essentially fly the plane.

The goal of the program is to build the co-pilots' self-esteem and imbue them with the confidence needed to reach their full potential.

"It's a chance for kids who get told they can't be on the little league team to go back to school on Monday and say they flew an airplane," said Juliet Siddons, Challenge Air event program director. "[We] show them that just because they're in a wheelchair doesn't mean they can't do anything they want to."

Since its establishment in 1993, the organization has been giving 7- to 21-year-olds with autism, cancer, visual impairments and other special needs the courage to tackle the impossible through the gift of flight. There have even been two instances where nonverbal children began speaking after guiding their plane through the clouds, Siddons said.

Challenge Air arranges 12-15 Fly Days for kids and their families around the country each year. The nonprofit brought its unique program to Chattanooga after being contacted by Elaine Adams and Michelle Brickey with the Therapeutic Recreation Division of the city's Youth and Family Development Department.

So far, the community's interest in the program has far surpassed expectations, Siddons said. She had hoped the Fly Day would attract maybe 35 children, but was surprised when the 50 available spots quickly filled up.

"We're still getting phone calls," she said.

The event has drawn families from Ooltewah, Soddy-Daisy and Ringgold, among other areas. Siddons credited the overwhelming response to Adams' and Brickey's connection to the surrounding community.

"I think that's why it's been so successful — because they work with so many of these children and they were able to get the word out to so many families about the event," Siddons said.

Though registration is full, Siddons hopes to hold a larger event next year capable of accommodating 75-80 families. In order to make that goal a reality, she said the nonprofit will need the community to get involved in raising funds.

"The more funds we can raise, the more kids we can fly," she explained.

In the meantime, she encourages anyone hoping to get involved to volunteer for this weekend's event. Those interested in the cause are also welcome to donate by calling 214-351-3353 or visiting All donations go toward the T-shirts, certificates and wing-shaped aviation pins given to the children after their flight, as well as overall event management expenses.