For a whole day, 2 year old John Austin experienced “a day in the life” of a USAF pilot as part of a community outreach program “Pilot For a Day,” to enrich long-term or terminally ill children. Austin, accompanied by his parents Jason and Kristy, and little sister Sarah, was embedded into the 58th Airlift Squadron at Altus Air Force Base to play with the big boy toys like the C-17 and KC-135 air crafts, Thursday, May 15.
John was escorted onto AAFB on the Altus AFB Fire Department’s Rescue 10 - truck with his mom and Sparky the fire safety dog. After changing into his new 58th AS flight-suit and getting his pilot wings pinned on by the base Wing Commander, Col. Bill Spangenthal, John was given his first mission briefing on the day’s objectives: watch working Security Forces K-9 dogs train, play inside the cockpits of both the C-17 and KC-135 air crafts, operate a fire engine and water hose, eat pizza and cake, train in the flight simulator, and look out over the entire flight line from high up in the air traffic control tower.
“It’s a day we will remember forever,” said John’s mom, Kristy Austin.
“It’s a good thing for him,” added John’s father Jason, active duty at Tinker AFB, Midwest City. “And it helps raise awareness for things that happen to kids like cancer and other diseases.”
John was selected for the program because he was diagnosed and treated for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at just 4 months old.
John was born June 29, 2011, and underwent blood work in October of 2011 after he became jaundice. The results showed he had an abnormally high white blood cell count. Jason and Kristy were then told that their baby boy had “high-risk” Infantile Leukemia and that John had a 45 percent chance to survive to age 5.
In all, John spent 44 days in the hospital during his first round of chemotherapy, has had seven surgeries and dozens of blood and platelet transfusions. Battling for his life at such a young age, John stopped breathing on two occasions where rescue breathing was performed. Since December 2011, John has been in remission. He has underwent 2 years of treatments. John now gets treatments every 45 or 60 days.
John’s amazement, joy, and energy was evident as ever as he skipped around inside the enormous fuselage of the C-17, and later splashed through the puddles of water he made from spraying a few gallons of water outside of the AAFB Fire Department.
Kristy said that their family was blessed with a great team of doctors who did all they could to make John the healthiest he can be. “I don’t think that most people that meet him now would ever have guessed that he had cancer,” Kristy said. “He is a typical two and a half year old boy. He gets into trouble and he’s silly and funny and he loves planes and dinosaurs, and it’s been really awesome… It’s a whole new world for us just to have him at home and playing and being silly so, we’re just really excited to get to do normal things with him again, or for the first time I guess.”
Jason said that getting to spend this day with his family was “worth it’s weight in gold,” as he will soon spend some time away from home on a remote assignment. He also described the tremendous support his family has seen from his friends and members of the USAF community.
“And then the support from everybody here at Altus, and Mr. [Jim] Bautista,” Jason said. “It’s just awesome. It’s neat to see people recognizing that kids go through this. They put this program together for them to just have a fun day and bring the family together, but also it all comes down to awareness. No parent really gets involved with childhood cancer unless they have someone in the family who has gone through it.”
The “Pilot For a Day” program was renewed under the joint initiative of 58th AS, MSgt. Keith Hackney, and Jim Bautista with Sheridan’s Sunshine Foundation who both have been affected by terminally ill family members. Volunteers of the 58th A.S. teamed up with Bautista at a children’s cancer awareness golf and barbecue fundraiser for Sheridan’s Sunshine Foundation. The foundation was started by Bautista’s daughter Sheridan before she passed away from Osteosarcoma Bone Cancer in December 2011.
Bautista had met John and his family when his foundation visited the OU Children’s Hospital. “He was one of the first kids that we had met,” Bautista said. “He just kinda made a lasting impression.”
MSgt. Hackney ran the “Pilot For a Day” program when he was previously stationed in Altus and also while stationed at Charleston AFB, S.C.,
“When I got back out here it was time to get it going again because I noticed that it dropped off a little bit,” MSgt. Hackney said. “Our goal right now is not only to have this one but to continue it.”
Hackney hopes to hold “Pilot For a Day,” once every quarter and to get more people involved.