07/05/06 — Volunteer pilots give N.C. Olympians a lift

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Volunteer pilots give N.C. Olympians a lift

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on July 5, 2006 1:48 PM

Since his days as a pilot in the Air Force, Jim Steele, the manager and chief pilot for Strickland Insurance Group Aviation, said he has grown accustomed to flying from point A to point B.

But as a volunteer for the fifth Citation Special Olympics Airlift, he said the excitement on each athlete's face makes every second in flight an adventure.

"The faces of the kids makes you proud to be a part of the Special Olympics program. You can see the support from their friends and family. It makes them feel like superstar athletes that are going to the real Olympics," Steele said.

Special Olympics athletes throughout the nation are competing in Ames, Iowa, for a week, and Cessna pilots throughout the country helped them get there.

In the airlift's first year, 130 Citation Cessna jets carried 1,000 athletes to South Bend, Ind. This year, Steele estimated 300 jets carried about 2,500 athletes and their coaches to the national games.

The airlift is considered the largest peace-time airlift in the country.

The event provides a memorable event for the pilots, Steele said, because "they get to use the aircraft for a fantastic purpose." But it also provides something special for their passengers.

"You could tell by the looks on their faces that their own private jet ride meant more to some of the athletes than the competition," Steele said.

Steele's passengers included five athletes and two coaches. Steele's Cessna jet was one of 14 departing from Raleigh-Durham International Airport.

The athletes are dropped off in Des Moines and the pilots pick them up after a full week of competition. Steele said that trip home is even better than taking them to their destination.

"They are so appreciative. They come back in with their medals. They just want to show them off and give you hugs," Steele said.

The last time Steele volunteered his time and services for this event was in 1999, when he flew athletes to Delaware.

"It was amazing. The airport announced each of the athlete's names as they entered into their planes. Everyone was cheering for them and you could see the pride on their faces," Steele said.