EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE — The 33rd Fighter Wing hosted Ethan Ibi, 11, and his family for the "Pilot for a Day" program March 9 at Eglin Air Force Base.
Ethan, who has a rare form of dwarfism, zipped up his very own flight suit and attached some special patches to join the rest of the F-35A Lightning II pilots in the wing.
The base's host wing, the 96th Test Wing, played a major role in Ethan's day. The 96th Security Forces Squadron greeted the Ibi family at the front gate and escorted them with lights and sirens.
"We were so moved to see each person and their role in this event," Ethan's mother Brooke Ibi said. "There was clearly so much effort put into this. Ethan was made to feel like a total rock star by each person we encountered. We expected to go and have a good time as a family, but this day exceeded our expectations tenfold."
Ethan loves the movie "Harry and the Hendersons." During his visit, he received an intelligence and mission briefing on how to find Big Foot in the local area. Ethan set out on a quest to find Harry with the 58th Fighter Squadron "Gorillas." While he didn't actually locate Big Foot, "they had a blast trying," his mother said. She said
"We do not expect for our son to be treated in a special way by others. We don't expect for people to go above and beyond for him, but they absolutely did."
He had the opportunity to sit in the cockpit of an F-35A Lightning II and overlook the base from the air traffic control tower while speaking with pilots in the sky. Ethan was also able to watch a military working dog in action and spray a firefighter's water hose.
"For Ethan, with his condition, being different means not being able to do so many things that he loves," Brooke said. "All of us struggle with something, but he wears his struggle for the whole world to see. People see his struggle before he ever speaks a word. That can be a lot for a person to handle."
The Pilot for a Day program provides an opportunity for school-age children with special needs to experience what it's like to be a pilot and learn about what goes on behind the scenes to make their job possible. The wing selects a child randomly from a pool of applicants sent in by various teachers in area school districts. Ethan was chosen from over 20 applicants.
"Thanks for giving our son a chance to pretend that he was a part of that life with you guys," Brooke said. "He truly felt like he made real friends through this and we are so thrilled to have been a part of something so meaningful."