Hill Air Force Base, Utah -- Fighting through adversity is something military members learn to master as part of their training to become elite fighters in the field of battle.
Similarly, kids who overcome the misfortune of critical illnesses also learn some of those same lessons about the importance of determination, perseverance and courage in the face of overwhelming odds.
A group of nine children and their parents from Make-A-Wish Utah visited Hill Air Force Base Thursday to earn their wings during a “Pilot for a Day" program. Make-A-Wish grants the wishes of kids from 2 1/2 years old to 18 years old with life-threatening medical conditions.
Each of the children was a survivor of a debilitating illness, explained wish coordinator Christina Wright. Nearly 200 children will be served this year through Make-A-Wish Utah, according to volunteer manager Jenny Hortin.
The children toured the base and met with pilots from the 388th Fighter Wing — the Air Force’s first combat-capable F-35A fighter unit. The kids got an up-close look at military’s most advanced multirole stealth fighter, along with interacting with the airmen who fly and maintain the jets, Hortin said.
"Watching the one-on-one interaction that they are able to have (with the airmen) makes it a great day for us," she said.
The children each got hands-on instruction with real flight equipment and were strapped into an F-35A cockpit trainer for a realistic pilot experience, explained Lt. Buck Horn, pilot with the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base. During the one-day event, the kids were able to board a flight simulator and later received plaques of photos with their pilot trainers.
"This is a great opportunity to give back to the community and have these kids out here to experience what was a dream for a lot of us and now is a dream come true for them," he said. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for them, and I'm glad they are out here to experience it."
He noted that the children also provide a sense of motivation to the airmen for having overcome challenging health circumstances in their own lives.
"Not only is it inspiring for them to be here, but it's also inspiring for us host them here," he said. "It's taken a lot of hard work on our parts to get here in our careers and these guys have gone through their fair share of difficulties and challenges. It's inspiring for us as pilots to be able to host them and to give them that (Make-A-Wish) experience."
Ogden native Colton Townsend, 18, received a kidney transplant in March after having been diagnosed with kidney disease two years ago. He said the experience at Hill gave him a better sense of what the military does and how it helps to protect the nation.
"If I had the chance to (serve), I'd definitely go overseas and help out," he said. "(For now, I'll) just keep pursuing my dreams and I could actually make there (one day)."
Michael Kay, 16, of Clinton, was diagnosed with leukemia that is currently in remission. He said the pilot for a day experience was "really cool and I'm glad I was able to be out here."
He added that battling a life-threatening illness had taught him valuable lessons about fortitude, and it's something other young people in his position should remember in tough times.
"Never give up, just keep pushing forward," he said. "Life is always going to bring exciting (opportunities) even if it does bring hard times."