10-year-old boy becomes Pilot for a Day

Ten-year-old Brandon Smalling tries on life support gear, Thursday August 10 at the 357th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing an A-10  up close.(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Ponte)

Ten-year-old Brandon Smalling tries on life support gear, Thursday August 10 at the 357th Fighter Squadron at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing an A-10 up close.(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Ponte)

Airman 1st Class Mark Cadena, 563rd Maintenance Squadron, shows 10-year-old Brandon Smalling the different aspects of a HH-60 Pavehawk, Thursday August 10 at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing aircraft up close.(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Kinsey)

Airman 1st Class Mark Cadena, 563rd Maintenance Squadron, shows 10-year-old Brandon Smalling the different aspects of a HH-60 Pavehawk, Thursday August 10 at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing aircraft up close.(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Kinsey)

Major Chris Zentner, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot with the 354th Fighter Squadron helps 10-year-old Brandon Smalling try on life support gear, Thursday August 10 at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing an A-10  up close.(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Kinsey)

Major Chris Zentner, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot with the 354th Fighter Squadron helps 10-year-old Brandon Smalling try on life support gear, Thursday August 10 at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing an A-10 up close.(U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Kinsey)

Major Chris Zentner, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot with the 354th Fighter Squadron shows 10-year-old Brandon Smalling the gun on an A-10, Thursday August 10 at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing an A-10  up close. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Kinsey)

Major Chris Zentner, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot with the 354th Fighter Squadron shows 10-year-old Brandon Smalling the gun on an A-10, Thursday August 10 at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing an A-10 up close. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Kinsey)

Major Chris Zentner, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot with the 354th Fighter Squadron helps 10-year-old Brandon Smalling in the A-10 simulator Thursday August 10 at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing an A-10  up close. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Kinsey)

Major Chris Zentner, an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot with the 354th Fighter Squadron helps 10-year-old Brandon Smalling in the A-10 simulator Thursday August 10 at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz as part of the Pilot for a Day program. The program is designed to help children with disabilities or serious illnesses to enjoy a day focused on them and their interest in aviation. Activities in the program include; trying on life support equipment, using Night Vision goggles, flying an A-10 simulator, and seeing an A-10 up close. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Christina D. Kinsey)

Davis-Monthan Air Force Base -- Ten-year-old Brandon Smalling and his family visited here Aug. 9 to participate in the Pilot for a Day program, which helps local children with disabilities or serious illnesses enjoy a day totally focused on them and their interest in aviation.

Each child gets the "distinguished visitor" treatment from various agencies on base, with special attention paid to the flying and operations elements of the base. Brandon is D-M's third Pilot for a Day visitor this year.

Brandon was born extremely premature at only 24 weeks, weighing 1.5 lbs. and measuring only 12 inches in length. He had to remain in the neonatal intensive care unit for more than three months before being able to go home.

His mother, Tracey Smalling, also explained that he underwent heart surgery at a very young age to close off a valve that hadn't fully matured, received laser eye surgery at age three, and is undergoing continuous therapy at the Tucson Medical Center for things such as speech and motor skills.

Brandon and his family learned about Davis-Monthan's Pilot for a Day program through the Children's Miracle Network, which, according to its Web site, is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and improving the lives of children by raising funds for children¹s hospitals across North America.

"This day is all about him; it helps with his confidence," said Ms. Smalling. "We've been concerned with his socialization, and this will help boost his self-esteem."

Brandon's day at the base began by meeting with host pilot, Maj. Chris Zentner, an A-10 Pilot from the 354th Fighter Squadron.

They then traveled to the 357th Fighter Squadron, where Brandon received his very own flight suit decked out in patches and his own name tag. He also met the squadron commander, Lt. Col. Scott Stark, and was sworn in as a pilot.

Being an "official" pilot now, he got to try on life support gear, experience night vision goggles and meet other squadron pilots.

After the introduction at the 357th FS, they traveled to the 355th Fighter Wing headquarters. Brandon got to meet the wing commander, Col. Kent Laughbaum, who showed him some A-10 video footage.

Next, Major Zentner took Brandon and his family to see an A-10 and HH-60 up close. They got to walk around, ask questions and climb into the aircraft.

"When do we get to go in the simulator!?" Brandon asked excitedly. He couldn't wait until he got to "fly."

After seeing the real aircraft up close, it was time to head over to the 355th Operations Support Squadron where Brandon got to experience what he'd been anxiously awaiting all day - the A-10 flight simulator. Brandon soared over "virtual" Tucson, making sure to include a fly-by over his house.

The group then returned to the 357th FS, where Brandon and his family got to enjoy lunch with some of the pilots.

Major Zentner said it felt great to give back to the local community and familiarize people with what Airmen do at D-M.

"It's a great opportunity for young children to see what is involved," Ms. Smalling said. "It gives a broader picture of what the Air Force does. It's good for them to see the real world. With all these video games and cartoons, I don't think they understand really until they see it."