December 12, 2012

A Special Visit to the Cockpit

Ten minutes with Chandler.  Ten minutes I will never forget.

Passing through Las Vegas on the last round trip of a three day sequence, we were running behind due to a de-icing debacle in preparation for our first flight and a subsequent mechanical issue on the second. It was the last leg of the day and it seemed Murphy’s Law was in full force. Admittedly, I was ready to be home, feeling cranky, and my little pity party seemed justified. Then Chandler walked into the cockpit.

Chandler appeared to be about five years old and was dressed like a western Sheriff, badge and all. He wore a huge black cowboy hat and an intricate belt buckle not much smaller around than his waist.  On his feet were extravagant boots like you might see on a country western star. His khaki shirt was decked out with an authentic looking Sheriff’s badge and arm patch and a real pair of Flight Attendant wings. I recognized the wings as real, but learned later that the Sheriff’s badge and arm patch were real as well. He had been deputized by the local Sheriff earlier in the day.

Chandler was thin. As I lifted him into the Captain’s chair and slid him forward toward the control yoke, he seemed to weigh far less than he should. But his deep blue eyes, buzz cut blond hair and ear to ear smile masked why he was here receiving such special treatment. He was soft spoken and polite, but alive with excitement surrounded by the busyness of the cockpit. He was curious about everything. What’s this? What does that do? Why are there so many buttons? Most children are timid in the pilot’s seat, but Chandler was bravely interested in everything I had to share.

Chandler has a rare bone marrow disease and a brain malformation. Each day is a gift. The Parker County Sheriff's department in Texas found out about him and organized a bone marrow drive on his behalf.  During this time they introduced him to Western Wishes, an organization that "strives to lift the spirits of children and young adults faced with adversity who live and love the western way of life."  Earlier this year, Chandler was sent to Wyoming to spend time at the rodeo with the cast of 8 seconds. It was there that he became the ambassador for Western Wishes Texas and would eventually fly to Las Vegas for the National Finals Rodeo. That's how I came to share the cockpit with this spectacular young cowboy. Chandler is a true cowboy and draws on his cowboy strength to get through his treatments. "Cowboys are tough."

Chandler´s trip was sponsored by Western Wishes and he was accompanied by an American Airlines Flight Attendant who just happens to be his Godmother. I'm sure she was as honored to be a part of this trip as I was to have him in the cockpit. She was the one who had given him the first set of wings…probably her own.

I looked at the Flight Attendant wings on Chandler’s shirt and decided he needed a set of pilot wings to match, but he definitely deserved more than a pair of plastic kiddie wings. Taking the wings off my uniform shirt and pinning them on his, I told him a story about my wings. They were important to me and I hoped they would be important to him as well.

“Chandler, when a pilot gets a job here, he goes out and flies with a teacher. The teacher sits right there in the seat you’re in and the new pilot sits in this one. They fly together for a few days and when the teacher thinks the new pilot is ready to go out and fly on his own, he takes a set of wings like these and pins them on the new pilot’s shirt. Just like this. These are the wings my teacher gave me. I've worn them for almost 14 years. They've been all over the place Chandler…to every city American Airlines flies to in Canada, Mexico and the United States.”

Chandler smiled even bigger than before and I suspect the wings will be as significant to him as they were to me. But that isn't the point. I didn't realize it until later, but he was the one giving me a gift. Actually, he gave me two. As he got off the jet back in Dallas, he stopped at the cockpit door to say good bye and handed me the picture and note I've posted below. I've received a lot of these over the years, but I’ll keep this one forever. The second gift was the realization that I've got it good. I’m happy and healthy and I have a great family and a wonderful job. I am thankful…and whatever insignificant trials I find myself navigating, clearly they are nothing compared to what this bright and cheerful young man is struggling through.

I am honored to have spent ten minutes with Chandler.

*If you are reading this post for the second time, you may have noticed some changes. I have included this little cowboy's real name and some detail about his condition after receiving permission to do so from his wonderful and supportive family.


  1. Your star will shine brighter in the heavens for the good that you did that day.

  2. ...and there goes my tears. Damnit, why must I be so sensitive to this?!

    Way to go giving him your wings! Remember that kids have innocence with traveling, and still think that pilots are just as cool as everyone once thought way back when. I am sure your wings meant the world to him.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for sharing this. You made my day. -C.

  4. ...sometimes the littlest ones teach us the biggest life messages.

    Thank you for your story. It centered me (again)...I seem to need that quite frequently!


  5. A tale to melt the hardest heart.....

    We all let life overtake us sometimes, this sort of thing resets the dial....

    Dave from the UK

  6. I am "Daniel's" grandmother. I was with him and the flight attendant (who happens to be my best friend) that day. I cannot thank you enough for the compassion that you showed my grandson. He was (and still is) completely in love with those wings. They will forever be cherished. God Bless you. And you might like this, Charlie Daniels was also on that flight. He waited just outside while Daniel was giving you the thank you picture. We were able to get a picture with Mr. Daniels after the flight. Bean (that's his nickname) was so excited because he got wings and a picture with Charlie Daniels (he thought Mr. Daniels was Santa Claus!)

  7. And this was my great grandson that you were talking about. He was so excited to sit in your cockpit. He wants to be a bull rider and a calf roper but now I think he wants to be able to fly the plane to and from the rodeos. Thank you for showing the world what a fantastic little boy he is.

  8. I am a deputy with the Parker County Sheriff's Office, which enlisted Chandler into our ranks as an honoary deputy. This young man is amazing. EVERY day! He smiles and is bright and happy, regardless of his pain and sickness.
    Each time we see Chandler, he blesses us and reminds us of what God intended life to be about... Love.
    He loves unconditionally, we should all strive for his attitude.
    He and his family have become a part of our lives.
    Thank you for sharing your story. I know first-hand what you meant about your problems seeming so insignificant after meeting him and experiencing his zeal for life.
    We will see him tomorrow and we are excited to see his wings and hear the story.
    Merry Christmas,
    Deputy Danie Huffman
    Parker County Sheriff's Office

  9. Thanks for sharing this story.

  10. This is beautiful. Faith in humanity: restored.

    Well done, sir.

  11. OMG, teary-eyed here! I was blessed to fly a Make-a-Wish child and his brother back from Disneyland the week before Christmas, and was even able to post their pic on my blog. We are so blessed to meet these little tykes, aren't we?!!

    Like you say, Ryan, it makes our little pity party pretty pity-full!