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D-M Airmen make local girl 'Pilot for a Day'

Capt. Michael Sommers, a pilot for the 357th Fighter Squadron here, and 13-year-old Kellie Miner-Durkit, Davis-Monthan's honorary Pilot for a Day, sit together in the cockpit of an A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft.  The Pilot for a Day program is designed to find children with serious illnesses and help them enjoy a day totally devoted to them and their interest in aviation.

Capt. Michael Sommers, a pilot for the 357th Fighter Squadron here, and 13-year-old Kellie Miner-Durkit, Davis-Monthan's honorary Pilot for a Day, sit together in the cockpit of an A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. The Pilot for a Day program is designed to find children with serious illnesses and help them enjoy a day totally devoted to them and their interest in aviation.

Thirteen-year-old Kellie Miner-Durkit sits in the pilot's seat of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, while Capt. Joshua Hallada, a pilot for the 55th Rescue Squadron here, explains the controls. The 55th RQS was one of several stops Miner-Durkit, a leukemia patient, made while visiting D-M April 27 as part of the Pilot for a Day program.

Thirteen-year-old Kellie Miner-Durkit sits in the pilot's seat of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, while Capt. Joshua Hallada, a pilot for the 55th Rescue Squadron here, explains the controls. The 55th RQS was one of several stops Miner-Durkit, a leukemia patient, made while visiting D-M April 27 as part of the Pilot for a Day program.

Kellie Miner-Durkit, 13, flies in an A-10 simulator at the 355th Operations Support Squadron. The simulator was one of several stops Miner-Durkit, a leukemia patient, made while visiting D-M April 27 as part of the Pilot for a Day program.

Kellie Miner-Durkit, 13, flies in an A-10 simulator at the 355th Operations Support Squadron. The simulator was one of several stops Miner-Durkit, a leukemia patient, made while visiting D-M April 27 as part of the Pilot for a Day program.

Kellie Miner-Durkit, Davis-Monthan's honorary Pilot for a Day, tries on night vision goggles at the 358th Fighter Squadron here April 27. The Pilot for a Day program is designed to find children with serious illnesses and help them enjoy a day totally devoted to them and their interest in aviation.

Kellie Miner-Durkit, Davis-Monthan's honorary Pilot for a Day, tries on night vision goggles at the 358th Fighter Squadron here April 27. The Pilot for a Day program is designed to find children with serious illnesses and help them enjoy a day totally devoted to them and their interest in aviation.

Capt. Michael Sommers, an A-10 pilot with the 357th Fighter Squadron, teaches Kellie Miner-Durkit about the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. The 13-year-old Miner-Durkit, a leukemia patient, was D-M's honorary pilot April 27 as part of the Pilot for a Day program.

Capt. Michael Sommers, an A-10 pilot with the 357th Fighter Squadron, teaches Kellie Miner-Durkit about the A-10 Thunderbolt II aircraft. The 13-year-old Miner-Durkit, a leukemia patient, was D-M's honorary pilot April 27 as part of the Pilot for a Day program.

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Kellie Miner-Durkit, a 13-year-old Arizonan suffering from Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, visited here April 27 as the most recent participant in the Pilot for a Day program.

The purpose of the program is to find local children with serious illnesses and help them enjoy a day totally focused on them and their interest in aviation.

The program originated at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, in 1994 and has since been adopted at several bases Air Force-wide. The program first took root here in August 2000, but has been dormant for the last few years. It's now starting up again, however, with Maj. Neal Kistler and Capt. Scott Michalowski, both from the 357th Fighter Squadron, as the lead coordinators.

"The program is being rejuvenated to allow for a monthly event," said Captain Michalowski. "I wanted to volunteer to help lead this. It allows me to help put a smile on a child's face who is going through things I could never imagine."

Kellie was diagnosed with AML in July 2004 and has undergone extensive chemotherapy treatment at the Phoenix Children's Hospital.

Kellie and her family were offered the opportunity to take part in the Pilot for a Day program through the Ronald McDonald House while staying in their Family Room at Tucson's University Medical Center. She was at the UMC for a bone marrow transplant operation.

Kellie's day started off by meeting her host pilot, Capt. Michael Sommers, an A-10 pilot from the 357th FS. 

They then visited the 358th Fighter Squadron, where she changed into a new flight suit - complete with patches and a personalized name tag - watched a few video presentations, tried on life support gear, and experienced night vision goggles.

After the introduction at the 358th FS, they traveled to the 355th Operations Support Squadron, where Kellie got to experience the closest thing to flying a jet - an A-10 simulator.

As she walked into the room housing the simulator, she said, "Holy-moley macaroni!" With a smile on her face the entire time, she "flew" around D-M and the local area, learned a few tricks, and then landed perfectly back on the runway.

"Seeing her on life support fighting for her life, and then in a simulator flying around, is just amazing," said Tammy Miner-Agee, Kellie's mother. "It's amazing to hear her use happy words and to see the happy expressions on her face."

Next, Captain Sommers took Kellie and her family to see an A-10 up close. She got to walk around the aircraft and ask some questions, before climbing up to sit in the cockpit.

Their next stop was the 55th Rescue Squadron, where Kellie got to sit in the pilot's seat of an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, meet some of the pilots and aerial gunners, and then sit in the gunner's seat and pretend to shoot the gun. Capt. Joshua Hallada, an HH-60 pilot for the 55th RQS, gave Kellie a squadron patch to add to her collection on her flight suit.

After some pizza back at the 358th FS, Kellie met with 355th Fighter Wing Commander Col. Kent Laughbaum, who presented her with a wing coin and thanked her for visiting D-M.

"This is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it's so amazing to see the smile on her face," said Kellie's mother Tammy Miner-Agee.

Kellie said she had a lot of fun and that her "favorite parts were flying in the simulator and being able to sit in the plane." 

"It's awesome being able to give back," said Captain Sommers.