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NEWS | May 25, 2010

Pilot for a Day dream comes true

By Rose Alexander Joint Base Charleston Public Affairs

Allen John "AJ" Risor is not your typical nine-year-old boy. AJ, who has been fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a potentially life-threatening childhood disease, visited Joint Base Charleston May 21 as part of his wish through the Make-a-Wish Foundation. His dream was to be a pilot for a day, and Team Charleston made that dream come true.

AJ toured the base as part of the Pilot-for-a-Day Program, an Air Force-wide program which allows seriously ill children to become honorary pilots for a day. The base works in conjunction with the South Carolina Make-a-Wish Foundation and the Medical University of South Carolina to identify the children who participate in the program. Charleston's airlift squadrons have sponsored these tours since the program started here in 1997.

The tour was hosted by Airmen from the 15th Airlift Squadron, led by Tech. Sgt. Keith Hackney, 15 AS loadmaster. Sergeant Hackney began his quest to schedule a pilot-for-a-day tour shortly after he arrived at Charleston several months ago. After coordinating with the Make-a-Wish Foundation and MUSC, he learned about AJ's dream to be a pilot. From there, he put his plan into action, contacted the family, arranged for a date and time for the tour and served as the family's driver and tour escort.

AJ, wearing a flight suit given to him by the squadron, was accompanied by his father, Dell Risor, and his sisters, seven-year-old Bell and two-year-old Cici, as they arrived at the 15 AS and were met by Lt. Col. John Lamontagne, 15 AS commander, and Lt. Col. Chad Rauls, 15 AS director of operations.

After showing him a video that explained Charleston's mission, Colonel Lamontagne presented him with several items so he would always remember this day. Several members of the squadron were on hand to witness this occasion as an excited AJ received a personalized name patch, squadron patch, hat and coin and was officially designated a pilot for a day and an honorary member of the 15 AS.

AJ's first stop was the 628th Security Forces Dog Kennels where Staff Sgt. Ramon Alexander, 628 SFS kennel master, and Senior Airman Brandon Edwards, 628 SFS dog handler, took him on a tour of the dog kennels, followed by a demonstration with Working Dog Beni.

When asked what he thought of the tour, a beaming AJ commented, "That was good."

AJ's second stop was a tour of the radar room at the Charleston Air Traffic Control Tower and then on to the C-17 Flight Training Simulator where he "flew" the plane all around Charleston and several places throughout the U.S. His co-pilot on this journey was Capt. Kyle Clinton, 15 AS pilot. Despite a couple of near crashes, AJ became so proficient that he was able to "advise" his sister, Bell, as she brought the plane in for a safe landing.

AJ's next stop was a visit to the 437th Civil Engineer Fire Department, where he and his family got a ride in a fire truck. The highlight of his visit to the fire department was shooting the water across the flight line.

The last stop was to tour a C-17. Captain Clinton and Sergeant Hackney answered AJ's many questions as he and his sisters explored the plane and had an opportunity to sit in the cockpit.

AJ's day as a 15 AS pilot concluded by having lunch at the 15 AS squadron with Colonel Lamontagne and other members of the squadron, where he was presented with his pilot-for-a-day certificate and a his wings.

"When you are around families who have struggles and problems as serious as AJ and his family, it really makes you put things in perspective," said Colonel Lamontagne. "We are honored to have had the opportunity to meet AJ and his family and to make his dream of being a pilot for a day come true."

A.J. was diagnosed 6 months ago with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which is the most common form of childhood leukemia. Mr. Risor described how AJ was first diagnosed in October 2009 after he developed a fever and a cough the day after returning from a Boy Scout camp out. He was seen by his pediatrician the following day. Although his fever went away the next day, AJ still had a cough, was short winded and lethargic, so the doctor referred him to Waccamaw Hospital in Murrels Inlet, S.C., for a CAT scan, thinking he might have a lung infection. When x-rays revealed a mass on his lungs, AJ was sent to MUSC where they confirmed the diagnosis of ALL on Oct. 31.

"His diagnosis came exactly three months to the day after AJ's mother died on July 31 as a result of a car accident," said Mr. Risor, "leaving me a single father of three."

Although the family lives in Murrels Inlet, Mr. Risor chose MUSC because of its outstanding reputation in treating children with various cancers. AJ began chemotherapy at MUSC on Nov. 1, which happened to be his ninth birthday.

After six-weeks of initial chemotherapy treatments, AJ was released from the hospital and now makes weekly trips to MUSC for his chemo.

"A typical chemo day includes a lumbar puncture to insert chemo into his spine, two types of chemo given intravenously, an ultra sound of his heart and an EKG," explained Mr. Risor. AJ's chemotherapy is working and, although he has had some set-backs, he is presently in remission.

Of all the forms of childhood leukemia, ALL has the highest cure success. Treatment consists of three-and-a-half years of chemotherapy, followed by five years of remaining in remission after treatment has ended. If the child remains cancer free for the duration of those five years, the cure rate is 85 percent.

"When I started working this project, my goal was to allow a sick child to forget about his illness, if only for a couple of hours," said Sergeant Hackney.

Sergeant Hackney met that goal. As he said farewell to AJ and his family, Mr. Risor stated, "This was the best day that AJ had in a very long time."

When asked what he thought of his day as a pilot, AJ summed it up best, "it was good, it was awesome." For one awesome day, yes, AJ's dreams had come true.