Flight school trains cancer survivors

By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – Controls set; gauges good; flap configurations ready; seatbelts clasped.

During the second week of July, four young adults took to the clouds with the help of Summit Aviation flight school. A part of Bozeman’s Eagle Mount Big Sky Kids program, this five-day camp taught survivors of childhood cancer how to pilot a plane.

Noah Elliott, a 19 year old from Missouri, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in his left knee when he was 16, at a time when he was seriously considering a professional skateboarding career.

Elliott received rigorous chemotherapy and surgical treatments, but a staph infection left him seeking ways to remain mobile but also save his leg. In the end, Elliott chose to amputate his leg from the knee down so he could maintain an active lifestyle with the help of a prosthetic.

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Noah Elliott in the cockpit of Summit Aviation’s King Air 200. On the last day of Flight Camp, each participant took turns in the cockpit as they flew over Yellowstone National Park. PHOTO BY JESSIANNE WRIGHT

Elliott joined three other survivors invited back to Eagle Mount this year to partake in Flight Camp, held at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport.

Megan Custer, a University of Montana graduate, has been in remission for eight years after treatment of Hodgkin’s lymphoma during her first year in college. She received four rounds of chemotherapy and 16 radiation treatments in six months. Her doctors are now most concerned with the long-term effects of childhood cancer and treatment, including growth abnormalities, heart challenges and compromised bone health.

Eighteen-year-old Eden Finn of California was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 13, after chronic flu symptoms and a distended stomach wore her down. An X-ray showed a mass in Finn’s stomach and she was rushed to the hospital to receive months of chemotherapy and radiation. After failing a mid-treatment check, Finn signed up for a bone marrow transplant and since then her health has stabilized. She intends to study nursing at Northern Arizona University next year.

“I get the chance to live right now, and that’s what I’m going to do,” Finn said of her decision to attend Flight Camp.
Silas Rea of Helena was diagnosed with Burkitt lymphoma when he was 15, and treatment included six rounds of chemotherapy, spinal chemotherapy and extended hospital stays. Now 18, Rea plans to attend Montana State University in the fall and said he was so inspired by Flight Camp that he might study aviation.

These four were each paired with certified flight instructors from Summit Aviation that donated their time for the entire week. Thanks to private donations, the pairs spent more than 10 hours of flight time in Diamond DA20 aircrafts—small, two-seat propeller planes designed for training.

The pilot training also included courses on aerodynamics and cross-country flight planning, as well as unique tours of private hangars and planes. The campers flew to a number of airstrips, including those in Dillon, Big Timber and Helena. To conclude the week, the group flew to Driggs, Idaho, in Summit’s new King Air 200 nine-person jet.

On the way, the flight passed over Yellowstone National Park, offering the campers rare views of iconic landmarks like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone Lake, and Grand Prismatic Spring, among others, as well as incredible views of the Teton Range.

Ben Walton, owner and founder of Summit Aviation, accompanied the young adults through the program every step of the way. Walton created the program three years ago with a desire to help cancer survivors after two loved ones battled the disease.

“For a lot of people, aviation is one of those things other people do. A lot of people don’t fly because they don’t think they can,” Walton said. Looking to the four students, Walton smiled. “But all of these guys could become pilots.

“Cancer has paralyzed them in the past and I think aviation is the opposite of that,” Walton explained. “Aviation empowers.”