News Stories

Wings for one brave child: 175th Wing Pilot for a Day

By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Antoinette Gibson | Defense Information School | September 23, 2016

WARFIELD AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Md. --

For children fighting serious or chronic medical conditions, most days can be a struggle. These children and their families endure countless hospital stays, transplants, surgeries and relapses, only adding to the pressure the family is already under.

Five-year-old Jack Kirkbride and his family know this scenario all too well.

In August 2015, for no apparent reason, Jack experienced internal bleeding into his heel, elbow and finger. His parents took him to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where doctors discovered his blood platelet count was 12 – a normal count is between 150 and 400. A bone marrow biopsy revealed Jack had leukemia caused by a very rare gene mutation called RUNX1, a gene only 36 children nationwide have been diagnosed with.

After nearly a year of multiple rounds of intensive chemotherapy then a bone marrow transplant from his father, Jack and his family learned recently that the leukemia had returned.

“Jack has kept his spirits high,” said Matthew Kirkbride, Jack’s dad. “The only thing that would get him through his treatments was the opening soundtrack of ‘Top Gun.’”

To recognize his fighting spirit through his ongoing fight with leukemia, Jack was honored as an A-10 Thunderbolt II pilot for a day by the 104th Fighter Squadron here, receiving a hero’s welcome the moment he arrived at the installation.

Jack, his brother, Ryan, and their parents, Brianna and Matthew Kirkbride, were guests of the base Sept. 17, as part of the Pilot for a Day program.

The program started in the 1990s at Randolph Air Force Base, Texas, and is designed to give terminally ill children the opportunity to live out their dreams for a day and to let their families enjoy time outside the challenges of everyday living.

The Gold in Fight Foundation and more than 100 U.S. service members, including Air Force Capt. Ryan Yingling, a104th FS A-10 pilot and Jack’s host for the day, partnered to make Jack’s wish of being a pilot come true.

“For kids like Jack, Pilot for a Day allows us to give back,” said Yingling. “I think it gives them a goal to shoot for and really helps brighten their day.”

Jack and his family started their day with a welcome from Air Force Brig. Gen. Randolph J. Staudenraus, the 175th Operations Group commander.

“(The day) started with the commander giving my sons the coin,” said Kirkbride. “He told them they were the boss and that it was their day, to just show their coin and they will get whatever they want. That set the tone for the whole day.”

The family received a flight brief, an aircrew flight equipment show-and-tell, a flight line aircraft launch demonstration, a simulator mission and a presentation from the 175th OG.

Jack was all smiles while sitting in the cockpit of an A-10 and said he enjoyed the simulator mission.

But what his favorite part?

“All of it,” he said.

Kirkbride said it is hard to express in words their appreciation for the squadron members taking take time out of their day to make this happen for Jack and his family.

“They truly went above and beyond – our Air Force family,” he said.

Editors Note: Members of the Defense Information School partnered with the 175th Air National Guard Wing to set up this opportunity for Jack.