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Airlift gets athletes to the games on time

Powerlifter Brian Beirne held his gold medal in one hand and pulled his new Marvel Comics hat over his face with the other. The 30-year-old Special Olympian was only on his second flight in a private jet, and although the typical summer clouds were providing a somewhat bumpy ride, he was chill. And he needed a nap.

the airlift

Photography by David Tulis Corporate and private aircraft participate in the Airlift and are ready for their passengers at Orlando Executive Airport in Florida. Alexa Akin and Brian Beirne flank their coach Amanda Berdorf in the Citation M2. Beirne returned home exhausted but elated from his gold medal win. Pilots Dave Hirschman and Luz Beattie prepare to fly their “Dove 122” passengers home to Trenton, New Jersey. It’s a conga line of jets departing Orlando Executive Airport, bound for locations across the country.

It had been quite a week for Beirne, who, along with teammate Alexa Akin and coach Amanda Berdorf, had traveled from Trenton, New Jersey, to Orlando, Florida, the week before in this Cessna Citation M2, competed in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games, and visited Disney World.

Suddenly he lifted his cap and asked Berdorf, “Why didn’t we go on any roller coasters?”

“There aren’t any in the part of the park we visited; that’s at Universal,” she expertly answered.

Satisfied, Beirne lowered his cap to finish his nap.

The Airlift

Pilots from 28 states flying more than 120 aircraft donated their time, aircraft, and fuel to ensure that the dedicated men and women—athletes, their coaches, and supporters—of the 54-year-old Special Olympics USA Games got to the week-long event in Orlando, Florida. The Textron Aviation-sponsored event is a monumental effort in which Cessna, Beechcraft, and Hawker aircraft owners and operators transport Special Olympics athletes and coaches to the games.

Established in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports organization for people with intellectual disabilities. The first games started as a camp founded by Shriver, grew to the 1968 games held in Chicago, and are now held every four years in different locations across the country. The games showcase the athletic abilities of participants aged 15 to 75 who train year-round in more than 30 different sports, from track and field to powerlifting, softball, soccer, and bowling.

Textron Aviation has coordinated the Airlift eight times since 1987, and the coordination of pilots, aircraft, athletes, and volunteers is nothing short of awe-inspiring. The Airlift transports thousands of athletes and their coaches from across the country to that year’s event site. This is the first time the games have been held in Florida.

“The Special Olympics Airlift program, coordinated by Textron Aviation, and the experience it delivers sets the stage for an incredible week. The support the Textron Aviation team provides truly makes all the difference,” said Joe Dzaluk, president and CEO of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games.

Travel is the largest expense for Special Olympics state programs, and the Airlift helps offset these costs by allowing athletes to travel to the games with their gear and teammates. The Airlift took athletes and coaches to the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando on June 4 from various airports across the country and returned them home on June 12. Since the first Airlift in 1987, nearly 10,000 athletes and coaches from across the United States have been transported to Special Olympics World Games and USA Games in general aviation aircraft.

“We do this for the athletes,” said Ron Draper, president and CEO of Textron Aviation. “This is an extraordinary experience for everyone involved and provides an impressive visual of the power of general aviation as well as the philanthropic side of the aviation industry.”

Shine As One

The games are a full-court press for Textron Aviation employees. From Wichita-based employees serving as greeters and transportation crew to Florida-based Textron employees checking in pilots at FBO Atlantic Aviation, the company’s participation in the games is a beloved event.

Highly coordinated, the Airlift engages volunteers as early as two years before the games, and the push for volunteer aircraft continues right up to the event. Each aircraft—depending on size—took three to seven athletes and at least one coach from a home base to Orlando Executive Airport (ORL). Each aircraft received a call sign of “Dove” and a number. From each airport and on the return, the slowest aircraft departs first. It’s a conga line as aircraft take off or land every two minutes. Participating pilots receive a $1.50 discount per gallon of fuel.

Textron looks for approximately 200 aircraft to participate, since there are potentially more than 800 athletes and coaches to transport from as far away as the Dakotas. If there are not enough aircraft, some participants volunteer to fly multiple trips. And many state teams elect to travel commercially, especially if they want to travel together. Some teams have as many as 150 athletes.

Textron does the air traffic coordination well—aircraft take off every two to three minutes and pilots are well briefed—but it is the ground-based crew with their red shirts and ebullient spirit that make the event. Driving golf carts with athletes out to the line of waiting aircraft, the Textron volunteers cheer and engage with their charges—“Is this your first time on a jet?” “Are you ready to get home?” “Did you have a great week?”—and there’s a Kodak moment every minute. The theme of the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games is “Shine As One,” and Textron shines at its Airlift.

“This is a beautiful opportunity to demonstrate how private aviation can benefit the public at large,” said Kriya Shortt, Textron senior vice president of global parts and distribution. “As someone who has been with Textron for over 25 years, it is an opportunity to interact with our customers and see their passion; an opportunity to see our employees who have poured their souls into this event; and an honor to see the athletes’ professionalism and the joy they have. Textron has a passion for Special Olympics, and it is an honor and privilege to be a part of the games.”

Bumpy landing

Berdorf had comforted Akin when the ride got a little turbulent on the way to Orlando from Trenton; it was Akin’s first flight, and she admitted to being very nervous. But she drove home with her parents who had come to watch the games, so Berdorf just had Beirne to supervise, and he clearly didn’t need her help. She could finally relax. Coaches are often former athletes themselves, as is Berdorf, but she now teaches fourth grade and volunteers for Special Olympics. It had been a long week. Coaches must get their athletes up and to their events early in the day and make sure they stay hydrated and on time. At one point, Berdorf said she was preparing Beirne for his event at the same time Akin was competing and she ran back and forth from one part of the arena to another.

She could finally admit that she, too, gets nervous on these flights, and when the aircraft ran into some summer storm clouds and hit a big bump, she said, “Oh, I just want to go home.”

But when the jet landed and Beirne’s father, John, came out to greet them, she was all smiles. John asked if he could look inside the jet—“I’ve never been in a private aircraft,” he said. Both athletes medaled in their events, and Beirne won gold for bench press. He has medaled before, but, as his father said, those other medals don’t matter now: “Gold is everything,” the younger Beirne said, with a fist-bump to his dad.

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txtav.com; specialolympics.org

Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.

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