Oklahoma teen touches the sky as 8th FTS Pilot for a Day

  • Published
  • By David Poe
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs
While Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy may keep aviation buff Damon Journey on the ground most days, his head and heart were in the clouds on his 16th birthday Oct. 15.

He was the 8th Flying Training Squadron's Pilot for a Day.

The 71st Flying Training Wing Pilot for a Day program connects deserving young people with once-in-a-lifetime experiences to share the wing's mission and encourage perseverance as guests overcome adversity in their daily lives.

Journey, joined by his mother, Leah Felter, and sister, started his day at the helm of a T-1A Jayhawk simulator.

Equipped with Virtual Image Takeoff and Landing XI systems, Vance's realistic simulators augment student pilot training regimens here. Journey, with a qualified T-1 co-pilot by his side, shuttled the medium-range jet over the Las Vegas Strip and nearby Spring Mountains during his virtual sortie.

"This is amazing and exciting," Journey said with brevity as he peered out the window at the virtual world below his airframe.

After touching down, 8th FTS' newest Airman lunched with student pilots and met his new commanders, 8th FTS commander Lt. Col. Bryan Elder and Cols. John Cinnamon and Jim Lackey, the 71st Operations Group commander and 71st FTW vice commander respectively.

The trio shared unit challenge coins with him, which is a military tradition among troops that dates back to the days of the Roman Empire.

Over pizza, Elder pointed out that Journey wasn't wearing a proper uniform and issued him a custom flight suit with personalized "8-baller" name tag adorned with the squadron's signature red.  

"Once a 'baller,' always a baller," Elder told him. "These [student pilots] will come and go, but you'll always have a place here in our squadron - for life."

After lunch and in uniform, Journey hit the flightline to tour 8th FTS T-6A Texan IIs and enjoyed Vance's busy runway, which sees more than 100 flights per flying day. 

After touring the base's cavernous maintenance hangars, he ended his day with some of Vance's first responders.

He checked out Vance Fire Department's heavy equipment and met VFD firefighters, then headed to the 71st Security Forces Squadron kennel section, where military working dog handlers put on a demonstration of MWDs in action.

Journey's day at Vance started with a chance run-in between Felter, an Oklahoma City nurse, and Justine Goode and her husband, 2nd Lt. David Goode, whose child Felter had previously cared for.

"They'd come visit me at the hospital when they were in Oklahoma City and I'd ask about their son," Felter said. "They in turn asked me about my son and daughter. One day they took it upon themselves to ask me if I thought Damon would be interested in coming to the base. I told them that he wants to fly so badly - that's a dream of his."

Felter said that in a post 9/11 world, she thought that Damon's day would have been a low priority for the Air Force, but the Goodes and Team Vance proved her wrong.

"I didn't have any idea that the military would do such a thing," she said. "I know that there are certain clearances that have to be given - I never believed that there were these types of possibilities for him. I'm grateful. "

Capt. Rob Volsey, from the 8th FTS, said that regardless of Vance's high-tempo training operations, getting Journey to Vance and planning his day was an easy decision.

"We share a love of aviation," he said, "that's why we're here. When the opportunity came, we jumped at the chance." 

Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy may prevent Journey from ever taking control of a real-world T-1 or piloting a T-6 alongside his new wingmen, but his spirit flew Oct. 15 - leaving a lesson for Vance Airmen.

"A lot of students get bogged down with how difficult [pilot training] is," Volsey said. "It's hard for them to see how fortunate they really are. It's a reminder to be thankful - [Journey's] smile is putting smiles on everyone's faces today."