An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Pilot-for-a-day youth reunites with pilot mentor

  • Published
  • By Deborah Silliman Wolfe
  • Thunderbolt staff writer
The 9-year-old enthusiastically chowing down on a hamburger and fries across the table looks like a typical child. A full head of soft, brown hair -- his tan skin accented by a dusting of freckles across his nose.

No one would guess that two years earlier, there was doubt that he would live to see his 8th birthday. Meet Christian "Champ" Simmons -- airplane enthusiast, basketball player, former Luke AFB Pilot-for-a-Day and leukemia survivor.

Luke AFB members first met Christian; his brother, Jacob; and his mother, Jean; through the pilot-for-a-day program in May 2007 when the family came to base for a tour and a chance to see the inner workings of the world's largest F-16 Fighting Falcon training base.

"It was a great experience," said Maj. Sean Holahan, 62nd Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations, and the family's escort for the day. "The pilot-for-a-day program is probably one of the most rewarding things we do at Luke."

The Simmons visited Luke May 4, 2007, exactly five days before Christian checked in to University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., where he received a bone marrow transplant from his 5-year-old brother, Jacob, who was a perfect match.

"As a cancer survivor myself, to know what he was about to go through, I knew it was going to be a tough road," Major Holahan said. "I knew what he was up against and to see his spirit and how positive and excited he was to be at Luke -- it doesn't get better than that. It's great to see a kid smile in the face of adversity."

While visiting Luke, Christian and Jacob had the opportunity to tour the fightline, see an F-16 with Champ's name on the cockpit, learn what pilots do daily and "fly" in a simulator.

"We didn't know if he was going to survive the illness," Mrs. Simmons said. "So the social workers at Phoenix Children's Hospital who introduced us to the pilot-for-a-day program wanted to make sure he got to Luke and had the time of his life before going into bone marrow transplant."

Mrs. Simmons reflected on the hospital stay, which she described as a very trying experience.

"We went through hell, literally," Mrs. Simmons said. "I was with him in Tucson for two months, where he was in a room all by himself."

Mrs. Simmons said that whenever the nurses came in and out of Christian's room, they had to clean themselves and put on special covers. She said the powerful chemo and radiation had to knock her son's white blood cells down to zero so when the bone marrow transplant took place, the new bone marrow could readjust.

"From the treatments, his face was like a balloon," she recalls. "He was pretty sick and when he could eat, he would throw up. He was miserable and moody. It was horrible."
Slowly but surely after his successful transplant, Christian started to heal. And now, two years later, his blood has tested negative for leukemia.

A healthy Christian visited Luke AFB again during Luke Days 2009, Thunder in the Desert Air Show and Open House.

"When we were at the air show, we met a guy who flies with Sean," Christian said. "I wrote Sean a letter on a piece of paper, and he e-mailed us."

And Major Holahan did more than e-mail, he and Christian were reunited in April when the two met at a local restaurant to catch up. Smiles and hugs were shared, and Major Holahan gave Christian two model planes to add to his collection.

"I am proud of you man," Major Holahan told Christian. "It's pretty awesome what you did."

After reminiscing about Christian's visit to Luke, Major Holahan had to head back to base.

"It is awesome seeing Christian again," Major Holahan said. "There are a million reasons to volunteer for pilot-for-a-day; guys do it all the time here on base and every single guy that does it has nothing but incredible things to say about it. They would do it again in a heartbeat. It was neat to see Christian come full circle from start to finish. He is, no kidding, a champ."