Most children dream about what they would like to become when they get older. Some dream of being a teacher, molding the minds of the future, while others might choose more dangerous occupations of fighting fires or catching criminals.
For 8-year-old Darion Thorne of Waldorf, Md., his dream is to be a pilot. Darion doesn't let anything stop him from dreaming; not even a terminal disease.
On Sept. 11, 2011, Darion was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, (DIPG) which is a tumor on the brain stem. The average survival of children diagnosed with DIPG is approximately nine months. The one-year survival rate is about 30 percent and the two-year rate is less than 10 percent, according to a website for DIPG patients, www.riahsrainbow.org.
Understanding the importance of how every day counts, Team Andrews members made Darion's dream come true with the Pilot for a Day program April 26.
The program, started in the 1990s at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, is designed to give terminally-ill children the opportunity to live out their dreams for a day and allow their families to enjoy time outside the challenges of everyday living. It began at Andrews in 2005, known here as P4D.
"The Pilot for a Day program has grown into a joint effort with all units on base and outside organizations," said Lt. Col. Rob Balzano, 201st Operations Support Flight commander and P4D lead coordinator. "It gives us, as military members, a chance to give back to the community and show our appreciation for their support."
Darion's dream-come-true day began with his initiation into the P4D at the 459th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron auditorium by taking an oath of office. He was then given a flight suit, flight bag and the proper insignia to ensure he was in uniform regulations.
"The uniform and all the insignia are exactly what official aircrew members wear and were donated from the same place they receive their uniforms," said Maj. Kara Sandifur, 459th Operations Group executive officer and P4D coordinator. "We made Darion the highest ranking person on base by making him a pilot for a day. It is important to dress the part."
1st Lt. Brandon Splawn, 201st Airlift Squadron mission pilot, was Darion's wingman for the day and wingman for life. During the day, Splawn took his new wingman to see missions at several units here.
The wingmen piloted in an F-16 fighter jet simulator and sat in a parachute harness at the 121st Fighter Squadron; toured a KC-135 Stratotanker at the 459 Air Refueling Wing; observed a Military Working Dog demonstration by the 11th Security Forces Squadron. They ate lunch at the 201 AS on a C-40B aircraft which is used to transport the First Lady and even got to call the tower to request clearance as they taxied onto the runway in a C-38A aircraft operated by the 201 AS. They also shot water out of a fire trucks water cannons.
"Darion's favorite part was the flight simulator," said Teila Thorne-Butler, Darion's mom. "His second favorite part was watching his favorite movie, Despicable Me, while eating his favorite foods inside the plane."
After all the stops of the day, Darion, Splawn and Darion's family headed back to the 459 ARW for a special ceremony.
Commanders and other representatives from all attended the ceremony where they saw a slide show of Darion's whirlwind day and presented him with coins, t-shirts, model aircraft, a fire-fighter helmet and other items from the units.
"Today has been unbelievable," said Thorne-Butler. "These kids need to experience all sorts of life and it is important they see how special they are to a lot of people."
The Check 6 Foundation, a non-profit organization used to help raise funds and awareness for the P4D program donated a $500 check to Darion's family.
"Check six is a pilot term which means check your six o'clock, or, check behind you," said Balzano. "It is a term with an underlying meaning of 'I got your back' and the foundation does exactly that- we support these kids and families and try to help them."
Each year the program has a P4D reunion at the Joint Service Open House and Air Show and all the previous kids who are able to attend are invited with their families and re-unite with their pilot.
"These kids aren't just a pilot for a day, they are a pilot for life," said Splawn. "I look forward to keeping in touch with Darion and his family. It is always nice to make people smile by showing them what you do every day especially to kids who experience difficulties most children do not have to go through."