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 and grew to the 1968 Games held in Chicago. The Games are now held every four years in different locations across the United States. The Games showcase the athletic abilities of participants 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 Special Olympics 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 year’s event was 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.
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. 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 do receive a $1.50 discount on fuel.
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.
“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.”
AOPA has donated its aircraft and pilots to the effort since 2014. For this event, AOPA flew its Cessna Citation M2 with two athletes and their coach from New Jersey’s Trenton Mercer Airport, to Orlando. In “Dove 122,” powerlifters Alexa Akin, 27, and Brian Beirne, 30, were new to flying in private aviation. Akin admitted to being very nervous, but her coach, Amanda Bendorf, kept her occupied with chatter and pointing out landmarks she might recognize from the air. They also discussed the excitement all shared with the added adventure of visiting Disney World.
Both athletes medaled in their events and Beirne won gold for bench press. He has medaled before, but as his father John said upon landing at home, those other medals now don’t matter: “Gold is everything,” the younger Beirne said, with a fist-bump to his dad.
“The whole operation ran like a well-oiled machine,” said AOPA corporate pilot Luz Beattie, who flew on both legs of the mission (AOPA President Mark Baker flew the arrival and Editor at Large Dave Hirschman flew the departure). “Textron staff was extremely well organized and professional, and ATC did an outstanding job keeping all these Dove aircraft moving right along. Kudos to all.”
The Games are a full-court press for Textron Aviation employees: From Wichita, Kansas-based employees serving as greeters and transportation crew to Florida-based Textron employees checking in pilots at FBO Atlantic Aviation, the company’s participation with the Games is a beloved event.
“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 programs. “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.”