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Offutt airmen hold airshow for special needs families

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AFPN) -- Airmen here pulled out all the stops to make several hundred people smile a little more during the Aug. 15 Air Force Week in the Heartland Special Needs Airshow.

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. (AFPN) -- Airmen here pulled out all the stops to make several hundred people smile a little more during the Aug. 15 Air Force Week in the Heartland Special Needs Airshow.

Offutt Air Force Base airmen brought community members who would have difficulties attending the official airshow schedule because of disabilities or injuries out to the base to see the exhilaration of an airshow without the crowds.

This was yet another part of the week-long festivities aimed at sharing the Air Force experience with everyone in the Omaha area.

"As you know it's an opportunity for us to reach out to the community," said Brig. Gen. James J. Jones, the 55th Wing commander at Offutt AFB. "What I've enjoyed is the ability to share with the community. They give us so much all the time, and this is an opportunity for us to give back to them a little bit."

The day started out with a morning visit by members of the Air Force Aerial Demonstration Squadron the Thunderbirds, to a local children's hospital, where they met about two dozen children.


"It's one of my favorite parts of our airshow weekends," said Maj. (Dr.) Charla Quayle, the Thunderbirds flight surgeon. "That's always a great way to come in touch with the community; with kids who are too sick to come out to the airshow."

Major Quayle said the visit meant a lot to her and set the stage for the rest of what would be a very special day at the base.

"For me -- this is what it's all about," she said.

"This is where they can actually touch our hands and realize that we're real people and not just these powerful jets flying out in front of them."

Out on the Offutt AFB flightline, a parade line of buses carrying special guests pulled up to the front-row-seat distinguished visitor area designated for viewing the many aircraft that were taking part in the airshow. The show would kick off with the U.S. Air Force Academy's Wings of Blue parachute team descending to the delight of onlookers and be highlighted by the Thunderbirds later in the day.

"It's overwhelming," said Tracy Bonnstetter of Omaha, a program manager working with special needs adults such as Chris, 27. "I almost cried during the national anthem in the beginning -- I was just tearing up. They all loved it too. It was their day."

"Almost everybody who came on the buses today has no Air Force affiliation," said Tech. Sgt. John Bartlett, assigned to the 55th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron whose8-year-old son, Jacob, has Pitt-Rogers-Danks Syndrome. "My wife does lots of visits with the group homes around the area, and while none of them are associated with the Air Force, most of them are here."

He said the base's special needs coordinator took care of everything guests needed, whether it was special wheelchair access or bus transportation.


Many of the people attending the day's airshow are considered special needs because they have a certain condition requiring some form of specialized care or support. For many special needs children, their care can be considered a full-time job, with specialized dietary requirements, medical appointments, therapy sessions and other necessary types of support from the families affected.

One such family is Staff Sgt. Ken Hindman of the 338th Combat Training Squadron and his wife, Joanne. Their 6-year-old son, Noah, has autism, a bioneurological developmental disability that affects 1 in 150 children born in the U.S. and is four times more prevalent in boys than girls. The condition impacts normal development of the brain in the areas of social interaction, communication skills and cognitive function.

Hindman said this was an important day for Noah, who like many typical children with autism has difficulties in verbal and nonverbal communication, social interactions, and leisure or play activities. He was diagnosed three years ago.

"It's huge because it's an example of how the Air Force takes care of its family as well as the community," Hindman said. "They're taking care of their own by having something like this for us, to come out here and bring my son too. Because if they didn't, my son probably wouldn't be able to come out here."

Hindman said one of the biggest problems with taking her autistic child to a public event is perception, as many children typically have what are referred to as "meltdowns" when they can't express themselves or cope with sensory overload, appearing to others as an undisciplined child.

"I think it's great because we don't have to worry about anyone staring at us," Hindman said. "That's the one thing I hate when we go somewhere and people stare at us; it drives me crazy."

Hindman said his son has difficulties with crowds. Autistic and many other children with special needs can have sensory issues where loud noises, big crowds and many unfamiliar surroundings can act as overwhelming force that they can't tolerate. Because of Noah's sensory issues, the Hindmans said they would have to use an alternate plan for seeing the airshow if this wasn't available.

"We'd be stuck on one of the back roads watching the planes or something like that and he wouldn't have anywhere near as much fun," Hindman said.


The enjoyment of an event like this was evident with guests and hosts alike.

When you see the look on a children's face -- the smile that they have -- I'll tell you, it kind of brings a lump to my throat," General Jones said. "I saw a 2 year old today who just got diagnosed with leukemia, and the smile on her face -- she's enjoying the show. And if nothing else for an afternoon, you can make them forget about the things they have going on in their lives -- just smiling, just having fun -- it makes everything worthwhile."

The child fighting leukemia is little Josie Beardsley, daughter of Heike Beardsley and her husband, Tech. Sgt. Tim Beardsley assigned to the 373rd Training Squadron here.

"Due to the chemotherapy, she is very susceptible to infections," eardsley said. "That's why we need to keep her away from the big crowds."

"It's hard for us to get her around huge crowds of people," Beardsley said. "But she just loves airplanes so much. In fact, she doesn't talk a lot but she did say 'Thunderbirds' loud."

Another special guest enjoying the airshow was Ashleigh Ferguson, 17, of Papillion, Neb. Ashleigh has cerebral palsy and is restricted to a wheelchair. She wasn't talking, but that didn't stop her from displaying one of the biggest smiles on the flightline as the Thunderbirds flew overhead.

"I like this a lot just because on the regular airshow days it's so crowded. This makes it so much easier," said Tabi Ferguson, Ashleigh's mother. "She loves to be around people and just being out and about, but it's easier in this kind of atmosphere because when you're out and about in the 'normal world,' people stare and it has to bother her. It's less likely to happen here in an atmosphere like this."

"It's the best thing I've ever seen," said 10-year-old Henry Wise from Millard, Neb., who is in a wheelchair while his leg heals from a horse-riding accident.


As the Thunderbirds pilots finished their performance, they returned to earth, stepped from their F-16 Fighting Falcons and greeted a barrage of friendly faces waiting to receive pictures and autographs. They spent some quality time with children from the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

"Our standard Friday afternoon after practice, we have Make-A-Wish folks come out," Quayle said.

"I have never experienced anything like this before," Beardsley said. "I'm very impressed by the way everything was set up. They had lunch for people and drinks and ear plugs. It was wonderful."

"For (the Air Force) to acknowledge the fact that it is harder for people with special needs to get around and out in crowds," Ferguson said. "It just means a lot to know that they take one of the days to let these guys come out here and enjoy it."

For more information on Air Force Week in the Heartland activities, visit www.airforceweekintheheartland.com .

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