The Southern California Soaring Academy, located at Crystal Airport in the Antelope Valley, is open to the public four days a week, Friday through Monday. On the days when the academy is closed, the non-profit organization uses their resources to encourage wounded service members and veterans through their Wounded Service Member Glider Program.
“Our mission is to give rides or flight training to wounded service members,” said SCSA general manager and board member, Christopher Bennett. Chris Mannion, SCSA board member added, “We began the glider soaring program in 2011 as a means of giving back to those wounded in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide them with a welcome home.”
The group hosts a private monthly event, which gives participants the opportunity to fly in a glider at no cost to them. Many of the participants are combat-wounded veterans from bomb disposal accidents. They now live with traumatic amputations and brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. The program is a chance for them to regain confidence or “literally re-learn to find enjoyment in life again.”
Each day of soaring is accompanied by a barbecue that is organized by one of a number of rotating volunteer groups. The volunteers are responsible for cooking and serving the food, and on occasion, supplying it. The pilots, many of whom are military retirees, are also volunteers.
The very first soaring event took place July of 2011 and served around 25 participants from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego. Today, the event has grown to include groups from the Veterans Administration Medical Centers in Long Beach, Loma Linda and West Los Angeles. Prior to participation, the VA must provide a medical clearance and transportation for the veterans.
“Some veterans will move their medical appointments to accommodate this event,” said Julie Bennett, office manager and volunteer coordinator at SCSA. “They aren’t going to miss this no matter what.”
The staff strives to create a “protected environment” for the veterans by hosting the event on days when spectators cannot access the airfield and ensuring that all volunteers have gone through proper training.
“It should feel as if they were going to a friend’s house for a backyard barbecue,” said Bennett.
She added that two local residents regularly provide seasonal baked goods such as cakes, cookies and pies for the barbecues. Some of the previous volunteer groups have included Outback Steakhouse, Edwards AFB groups and active duty members of the USAF ASC/WII OL Detachment 3 at Grey Butte, Calif., commanded by Lt. Col. Nate Titus.
The volunteers typically average 10 hours of work per soaring day which adds up to approximately 1,600 man-hours of volunteer effort per year. Because of the volunteers, the academy was able to offer over 200 wounded warrior flights in 2012.
“The guests that come, when they hear that the neighbor women have baked for them and the wives [of the pilots] have baked for them or the Air Force showed up to cook for them, they are really affected by that,” said Bennett. “It’s uplifting for everyone involved.”
According to Bennett, some of the participants served in World War II or Vietnam and they “shed tears” when they hear that the volunteers are there to provide a “fun day” just for them.
Chris Mannion, SCSA Board Member, said he finds it hard to quantitatively measure the therapeutic benefits to the patients, but has observed “anecdotal evidence” of the program’s results. “I recall one Marine, who had lost both legs in Iraq, land in his sailplane with his instructor pilot and when we opened the canopy he beamed, ‘Wow, that is the most alive I’ve felt since I was wounded.”
During their regular business hours, the academy offers ground school and flight training in gliders. A portion of funds raised from those services, along with donations, are then used to support the Wounded Service Member Glider Program.
“What people are paying for their lessons and rides in the commercial operations helps support [the program],” said Bennett. “The money helps with fuel, maintenance and other expenses.”
With the glider program fully established, SCSA has started to reach out to school groups. Their goal is be available for field trips that will introduce students to aviation and relate that to the Science and Math they are already learning in school.
“A program that we have in the pipeline is to bring 7th through 9th grade students out here for a field trip, not to fly, but to observe and do ground school that includes the current Math and Science they are working on and showing how it integrates with real life,” said Bennett. “Like the work we do with the VA, we carefully craft the environment for the kids so that it becomes thrilling.”