by Meredith Alt
WisDOT Bureau of Aeronautics
Published in Midwest Flyer – October/November 2019 Issue
A line of volunteers holding signs and ringing cowbells cheered the newest arriving teenager at the entrance to Morey Field in Middleton, Wisconsin, on July 13th. Thirteen-year-old Ameria looked away, then smiled shyly, while volunteers participating in the “Above the Clouds” flight day called out, “Woohoo!! This is your special day!” and other words of encouragement. Meanwhile, out on the runway, another group cheered for the passengers who were about to land: a teenage boy and his mother, both wearing huge smiles.
This year, Wisconsin has become the second location of the Massachusetts-based organization, “Above the Clouds,” whose mission is “to bring joy and hope through the wonder of small aircraft flight to children and teens who are seriously ill, disabled, underserved, or facing other serious adversity.”
The founder of the Madison-area chapter, Susan Schwaab, is a recently retired United 777 Captain who says she learned about the organization around 2 years ago, while researching flying programs for underserved kids. She wanted to combine her love of flying with volunteer work with kids and teenagers in need.
“Their mission of bringing joy and hope is a really important part of the program,” Schwaab says. “The goal is for each kid to feel celebrated. It’s their special experience.”
A unique part of the program is that families get to share the experience. Twelve-year old De’aisha had never been in an airplane and brought along her grandmother Delores. De’aisha said her favorite part was getting to try flying the plane herself while her grandmother, who had been on a commercial plane, but not in a small plane, said, “For us to go up together was so exciting… It’s all about a first time. It was awesome.”
Volunteers commented on the individualized attention each participant received. Breezy Moczynski, a member of the local chapters of both EAA and Women in Aviation International, participates in a variety of aviation outreach and says each of the groups’ activities are important for reaching young people. “This [event] is intimate,” she says. “I’ve seen a kid and parent get off the plane and hug.”
For now, Schwaab plans to have around five young people participate in each flight day. As part of making each person feel celebrated, she works with community members to identify participants who will find the experience particularly meaningful. As the day of their flight nears, she helps to build anticipation and excitement. At the event, each participant receives an individualized flight lesson, participates in a pre-flight with their pilot, and a team of people wave and cheer as they take off.
A post-flight celebration is also meant to recognize the participants. After landing, each young person heads inside to take a picture with his or her pilot, is awarded a flight jacket, and is invited to write about the experience in an “Above the Clouds” journal. Several entries exclaimed “This was the best day of my life!”
Schwaab hopes that the experience of flying opens participants’ eyes to new possibilities and to recognize that flying is something they can do. For participants who want to continue with aviation, “Above the Clouds” has three levels to its program: the introductory flights (Dream Flyers), a second mentoring level in which teenagers have the opportunity to fly regularly (Discovery Flyers), and a third level in which teenagers set goals and are encouraged to develop discipline, integrity, and other life skills (Cadet Flyers).
With the first flight events of 2019 a resounding success, Schwaab plans to hold additional flight days monthly through the fall and to start again next spring. She is looking for volunteers who would like to be part of the joy of future “Above the Clouds” activities as pilots or on the ground.