Wish granted for young, aspiring pilot

  • Published
  • By Airman Adam R. Shanks
  • 6th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs

His eyes lit up with excitement as he sat in the co-pilot seat of a KC-135 Stratotanker simulator. His pilot spoke words of encouragement, strengthening his drive to complete the task. The simulator screen showed the morning horizon, just south of MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, as lights from the cockpit controls lit up his face, showing a grin spanning from ear-to-ear. At this moment, he focused on successfully landing the KC-135 while fulfilling his dream of becoming a pilot.

Mark Carnes, a 14-year-old from Richmond, Virginia, and his mother, Gwendolyn, toured MacDill Aug. 23, 2016, as a part of his wish with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

The tour began with Mark having lunch with Maj. Chad Gugas, a KC-135 pilot assigned to the 91st Air Refueling Squadron. Gugas answered any and all questions about flying and even gave Mark his first challenge coin.

“Now, whenever Mark sees an Airman or any service member, he can challenge them,” laughed Gugas. “The winner gets a soda, of course.”

Although the origins of challenge coins cannot be confirmed, today they are primarily used to raise morale in a squadron or unit. In this case, they launched Mark’s morale.

After lunch, Mark made his way onto the flightline to marshal a KC-135, piloted by none other than Col. April Vogel, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing (AMW), who met with Mark and gave him his very own 6th AMW patch.

“I’m getting so many cool things today,” said Mark. “I can’t wait to show my friends back home.”

Next, Mark dropped in to see the parachute riggers and experience a virtual reality parachute simulator. After jumping once, he grew excited for a second try, and this time he landed inside the Air Force Academy’s Falcon Stadium.

“It was so much fun,” Mark said. “But it was definitely a lot more difficult than it looks.”

Once his feet were back on the ground, Mark was escorted to the air traffic control (ATC) tower to become a certified controller. He completed the ATC simulator training and was able to join fellow controllers upstairs. Equipped with his headset, Mark plugged in and prepared himself to instruct an aircraft. He was nervous, but the training he received “was great,” he remarked.

 “Mark put his skills to the test and completed his training, and is now a certified Air Force air traffic controller,” said Master Sgt. Tyrone Wilson, the tower chief controller assigned to the 6th Operations Support Squadron (OSS). “We presented him with a five-level certificate.”

With a certificate in hand and an ATC functional badge on his shirt, Mark visited the MacDill Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) center to learn about isolated survival and hand-to-hand combat from a SERE specialist. There he was trained how to disarm a pistol or rifle-wielding adversary using only his hands.

“He caught on very quickly,” said Staff Sgt. Benjamin Heard, a SERE specialist assigned to the 6th OSS. “It’s a scary situation being held at gunpoint, but Mark can now get himself out of that situation if needed.”

Armed with combative knowledge, Mark was ready for the final stop of the day at the KC-135 simulator. Gugas joined Mark once again, and took him under his wing as his co-pilot to walk him through the process of piloting the aircraft.

“Wow, you’re doing great!” exclaimed Gugas as Mark made the descent towards the MacDill runway. The aircraft’s nose pointed perfectly at the center line.

While Mark piloted, Gugas coached him, and within minutes, Mark was touching down on the runway.  

“I was impressed with Mark’s performance,” said Gugas. “I was an instructor in the past, and I have to say he did better than some of the first-time pilots I trained.”

From marshalling in an aircraft to being a co-pilot in a flight simulator, Mark’s wish of being a pilot was granted. Mark left MacDill with a feeling of pride, and gifts from each location he visited. Multiple challenge coins, shirts and patches filled his mother’s purse as they departed.

“Today was incredibly awesome,” Mark said. “I’m having a hard time picking which part was my favorite, but I loved every minute of it.”