“This is business aviation at its best—so many people giving their time and talents to such a worthy cause.” —Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the NBAA. (Photos: Mark Phelps)
“This is business aviation at its best—so many people giving their time and talents to such a worthy cause.” —Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the NBAA. (Photos: Mark Phelps)

Exit: The Brightest Side of Private Flying

The Special Olympics Games have profoundly impacted millions of people. Aircraft owners and operators help make the events possible.

“Whaaaaat-up, New Jersey?!” shouted Ryan Gray, a golfer from Michigan, as he walked across the tarmac toward a throng of raucous fans. Arriving at Trenton-Mercer Airport to compete in the 2014 Special Olympics Games, Gray waved and high-fived like the celebrity he is. Accordingly, his ride was nothing less than a Cessna Citation Sovereign private jet, all expenses donated by the corporation that owns and operates it.

Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics is the world’s largest sports competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. More than 4.2 million athletes from 170 countries participate. For the 2014 U.S. national games, Cessna Citations and—for the first time—Beechcraft King Air turboprops flew some 700 athletes, coaches and family members from all over the country as part of the Citation Special Olympics Airlift, at times touching down at Trenton every 90 seconds. Gray’s flight, which also carried eight fellow Michiganders to the games, was one of 105 arriving in New Jersey on June 14. This year’s operation was the seventh such airlift.

Organized by Cessna and its parent company Textron Aviation, the airlift brings together aircraft owners and operators to transport the athletes in a high-rolling style they’ll never forget. The pride on their faces as they disembark in front of the waiting crowd is a priceless reward for those who help make the flights possible.

Besides the aircraft owners and crews, hundreds of other volunteers worked to support the 2014 airlift. The FBO at Trenton-Mercer Airport, Ronson Aviation, cleared the parking ramp and hangars, also arranging for extra tugs, tow bars and fuel trucks. FAA air traffic controllers began their preparations 18 months before the event, when they started laying out arrival routes for the incoming flotilla of jets. Local businesses provided hospitality tents, food, water and coffee. Army and Air Force National Guard units drove the trucks that delivered athletes’ luggage to dormitories near the sites of the games.

Some of us in the welcoming crowd played the humble role of baggage handlers, emptying the jets’ cargo holds and schlepping the athletes’ duffels across the ramp in golf carts. This was my third time slinging bags at one of the airlifts, and it never fails to keep my spirits glowing for weeks afterward.

Cessna’s line of Citation jets ranges from six-passenger Mustangs, designed to be flown by a single pilot, to intercontinental corporate transports such as the Citation X, which can fly at better than 9/10ths the speed of sound. Many of the aircraft operators for the airlift were small companies, and sometimes the pilot was also the business owner. Other jets came from Fortune 500 companies, most of which preferred to keep their largesse anonymous. The airlift isn’t about P.R. and photo ops. It’s all about the athletes.

The first Citation Airlift was in 1987, when its volunteer pilots flew athletes to the national Special Olympics games in South Bend, Indiana. The airlift logo was designed as a stylized facsimile of the Cessna logo, which features a jet silhouette. For the airlift, the silhouette is in the shape of a dove instead, and all airlift aircraft receive a “Dove” call sign for air traffic identification. “Dove One” arrived at Trenton-Mercer Airport from Columbus, Ohio about 8:30 on the morning of the 2014 airlift, and the last arrival came in from the West Coast about 7 p.m.

The FAA also ramps up for the airlift. Usually thought of by pilots as disembodied voices over the radio, air traffic controllers embrace the event. “They get to touch something that they usually never get to see,” said Mike Artist, regional manager in charge of planning for the operation, during the June event. “Today, every controller east of the Mississippi is on the lookout for the Dove call sign. You can hear them thanking the pilots for participating.”

The airlift has not been immune to the ravages of the economic recession that began after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Participation has dipped since the apex in 1999, when 260 jets carried 2,000 athletes and supporters to and from Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina. But while the numbers have diminished, the spirit remains strong. “This is business aviation at its best—so many people giving their time and talents to such a worthy cause,” said Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the National Business Aviation Association, at the June event.


For information about donating use of an aircraft or helping with future Special Olympics airlifts, contact Rhonda Fullerton at (316) 517-5438. To donate funds to the charity, visit specialolympics.org.

Mark Phelps is a managing editor at BJT sister publication Aviation International News.