Dreams take ‘flight’ at Hill Air Force Base

Cameron Cox will fly to Hawaii next year as part of the Make-A-Wish program and when he does, he might now be able to talk shop with the pilot who flies him there. Cox, a 13-year-old Bountiful resident, was one of 13 children from the Utah Make-A-Wish Foundation who spent Oct. 2 with Hill Air Force Base’s 388th Fighter Wing, touring the base and learning the ins and outs of being a fighter pilot.

The annual program, dubbed "Pilot For a Day," offered the children with life-threatening medical conditions an insider’s view on several other of the base’s operations as well.

"It’s been an awesome day for us," said Cox’s mother, Carrie. "We live in Bountiful, but it’s not like you can just walk onto the base and look around. We’ve never been up here, so for us, it’s an opportunity to do something we otherwise never would have been able to."

Carrie Cox said her son’s official "wish" with the program was to fly with his family to Hawaii, something the organization will provide in February.

After breakfast and photos in the morning, the children changed into custom-made flight suits — nearly identical to the same suits worn by Hill fighter pilots. The kids were then treated to demonstrations from the base fire department, the explosive ordnance disposal team and the security force’s Military Working Dog team.

They eventually made their way to the main event: an up-close-and-personal tour of an F-16 and the ballyhooed next-generation fighter that will replace it — the F-35.

Cox, who has cystic fibrosis, was giddy.

"I liked seeing the dogs, but my favorite thing was probably the jets," Cox said, who was able to climb into the cockpit of the F-16 on display.

After seeing the Fighting Falcon from the pilot’s seat, the kids weren’t able to take to the skies, but did get a shot at what’s probably the next best thing: the F-16 flight simulator.

Jenny Hortin, Utah Make-A-Wish volunteer manager, said she watched several children’s "eyes light up" as they guided their own virtual flights.

Hill Capt. Sarah Kercher and Tech. Sgt. Tony Longinotti said the base works with outside donors who provide private funding that allows the base to hold the event each year.

"The feeling around here is that we enjoy it more than the kids do," Longinotti said. "It’s something we look forward to every year."

Hill Lt. Col. Nathan Litz had a special connection to this year’s event. His 6-year-old daughter Gracie was one of the children participating in it.

"She was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins lymphoma‎ about a year ago," Litz said. "She doing well, she’s in remission."

Even though he’s a member of Hill’s 419th Fighter Wing and the Air Force is a regular part of his family’s life, Litz said, his daughter wasn’t any less enthusiastic about her experience.

"Getting to see a lot of this stuff through the eyes of a child is pretty neat," Litz said. "I think it’s a day a lot of us won’t forget."

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