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Non-profit allows kids to make a special flight

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 11/3/2018 By Mike Glenn Staff writer
a boy taking a selfie in a car: Joseph Pantoja, 9, of Cypress, during his Challenge Air flight at Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport. The Dallas-based program started in 1993 to “change the perception of children with special needs through the gift of flight.” © Mike Glenn / Staff Joseph Pantoja, 9, of Cypress, during his Challenge Air flight at Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport. The Dallas-based program started in 1993 to “change the perception of children with special needs through the gift of flight.”

The small, single engine Piper Lance was somewhere over Lake Conroe when Joseph Pantoja placed his hands on the control stick. He checked the bewildering array of gauges while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the horizon.

a group of people sitting around a car: Joseph Pantoja, 9, of Cypress during his Challenge Air flight near Lake Conroe. © Mike Glenn / Staff Joseph Pantoja, 9, of Cypress during his Challenge Air flight near Lake Conroe. a man holding a kite: The boy is Joseph Pantoja, 9, of Cypress with pilot Wyn Croston, a volunteer with Challenge Air for about a decade. © Mike Glenn / Staff The boy is Joseph Pantoja, 9, of Cypress with pilot Wyn Croston, a volunteer with Challenge Air for about a decade.

“You did such a good job going around the lake. You’re the best co-pilot I’ve ever flown with,” airplane owner Wyn Croston said from the left seat.

a man standing next to a road: Joseph Pantoja, 9, of Cypress and pilot Wyn Croston spend time together during the Challenge Air program at Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport. © Mike Glenn / Staff Joseph Pantoja, 9, of Cypress and pilot Wyn Croston spend time together during the Challenge Air program at Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport.

Not bad for a 9-year-old.

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On Saturday, Joseph and his mother, Susana Pantoja of Cypress, had about 30 minutes of flight time as part of Challenge Air, a Dallas-based program started in 1993 to “change the perception of children with special needs through the gift of flight.”

Joseph, who is diagnosed with autism, and other children with special needs crowded into the hanger that day at Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport. He seemed a bit wary at first, but his mother said that was just his manner.

“I’m a little nervous but he’s thrilled,” she said. “When he grows up, he wants to be a pilot. This is right up his alley.”

The organization was founded by Rick Amber, a combat Naval aviator who became a paraplegic after a crash off the coast of Vietnam. Amber died in May 1997. Today, the organization he founded has a network of 3,500 volunteers nationwide who volunteer their time, effort and airplanes for events called Fly Days.

“We give special-needs kids and their families discovery flights around Lake Conroe. We’re hoping to bolster their self esteem through flight,” said Kevin Griffin, chairman of the Challenge Air program in Conroe. “We reach out to the special needs communities, we reach out to airports, we reach out to the pilots. It’s all staff work. We have people from all over the Houston area come up for this.”

The program gives kids the opportunity to look past their own particular challenges - whether physical or emotional - through the experience of flight, Griffin said.

“They will realize that if they can fly in an airplane, there are a lot of things they can do,” he said. “They’re not limited by their own particular special needs.”

Before and after their flights, the kids walked down a red carpet and cheered on by a crowd of supporters. Ella Redinger, 11, has had some aviation experience but only in large passenger jets.

“Nothing like this,” Ella said, staring out at the small private planes arrayed before her.

Christine Redinger said kids like her daughter often miss out on fun events and tend to be the type picked last for games.

“She’s very happy today - which is not always the case,” Redinger said. “I have four kids and this is chance for her to do something by herself.”

At 16, Richie Costa was one of the older kids at the event on Saturday. Sometimes Richie can get overly excited and his parents were worried the experience might be a bit overwhelming. That wasn’t the case, said his father, Richard Costa. He even opted against wearing headphones to dampen the noise.

“I was worried he would be touching things but he was very calm,” Costa said. “He doesn’t say much but he definitely wants to come back again.”

Michael Rahn, a pilot volunteering for the first time on Saturday, has a nephew with special needs.

“We’ve seen the impact of aviation on his life. The community is pretty outstanding,” Rahn said. “To me, this is a blessing to be able to share.”

Rahn, who lives in Montgomery, said his special-needs passengers seem to be mesmerized while soaring through the air.

“You just recognize that anything is possible,” he said.

Croston has been volunteering with the program for about a decade. He still gets a little emotional when he talks about the joy on the faces of the children following one of the flights.

“You just can’t imagine what it does for them,” he said.

Susan Pantoja sat behind her son and watched him clamber into the co-pilot’s seat. She could tell he was excited.

“I’m very grateful for this. There’s just not a lot of stuff out there for these kids,” Pantoja said.

After getting the thumbs up from the tower, Croston gunned the engine and the airplane rolled down the runway. The Piper Lance quickly picked up speed and jerked into the sky — a bit more jarring than your average Southwest Airlines take off from Hobby Airport.

“It’s like driving down a dirt road — a little bumpy but it’ll be fine,” Croston said over the intercom. His youthful co-pilot replied with a confident, “OK.”

After about 20 minutes in the air, Croston asked if everyone was ready to head back to the airport.

“No,” Joseph said. “Can I fly again?”

mike.glenn@chron.com

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