Terminally ill teen takes flight in aero club plane

  • Published
  • By Mike Wallace
  • Wright-Patterson AFB Skywrighter staff
Jacob Dennison is an 18-year-old who longs to be a pilot. The son of retired Master Sgt. Steve Dennison and his wife, Tammy, Jacob was born at Moody AFB, Ga., and has been around aircraft his whole life.

Of his persistence in wanting to fly, his mother said, "He never stopped talking about it. He's always wanted to be a pilot. His dad worked in ordnance in his Air Force career, and Jake just kept talking about flying."

He sent a letter "to any pilot" at Wright-Patterson explaining what he wanted. The letter, in part, reads,

"I would love to see the inside of any aircraft cockpit. I don't have one that I like more than the other. I would like to know what buttons that need pushed and levers to be pulled that make them fly. I have flown before on a commercial airplane and loved the feeling of taking off and landing. It is very exciting. I wish I could fly and become a pilot, but I have special medical needs that prevent me from that dream. I still have the desire to learn as much as I can about flying and would love to be around the aircraft on a more consistent basis. I truly wish I had a pilot for a friend and he or she can talk with me about my dream of flying."

The "medical needs" he referred to in his letter is a rare, genetic disease called ataxia-telangiectasia. This is a terminal condition that causes loss of muscle control, immune system deficiencies and high rate of cancer. Most children with A-T need to use wheelchairs by age 10 and often don't live past their teens.

The disease causes its victims to have combined symptoms of cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, immune deficiencies, muscular dystrophy and cancer. The disease took the life of Jacob's sister, Megan, in 2004.

When his doctor, Maj. Jody Brown, heard about Jacob's flying aspirations, he called Joanne Austin, chief of family advocacy and private pilot, and asked her if she might arrange an airplane ride through her contacts at the base aero club.
Ms. Austin, in turn, called her instructor pilot, Claude Armentrout, to explain the situation and he agreed to take Jacob for a ride. Dave Ross, a former Air Force pilot, read Jacob's letter and decided to fund the flight.

A retired master sergeant, Mr. Armentrout has been an instructor pilot at the aero club since 1985.

He made Jacob's dream of flying a reality Saturday when he, Jacob, Dr. Brown and Sgt. Dennison took an hour's flight from Wright-Patterson to 5,000 feet above Springfield, Cedarville, Caesar's Creek State Park and finally over Jacob's home in Fairborn. The airplane was an aero club Piper Archer, and Jacob handled the controls for most of the flight.

Jacob said he not only enjoyed the experience, and despite understating his flying, saying, "It was fine," he can't wait to do it again. Although he needed some assistance in climbing into the cockpit, once inside, he became an integral part of the crew. He asked questions about the aircraft's capabilities and instrumentation and got to pilot the plane, seeing aerial views of the Ohio countryside.

Jacob graduated in June from Fairborn High School. In 2005, he participated in the base Pilot for a Day program in which he received his own flight suit, which culminated in his taxiing down a runway. His only actual flying experience prior to Saturday was in a commercial airliner on flights to and from Florida and Disney World.