It is Labor Day week 2011. For the 40th consecutive year Galesburg Illinois, a sleepy Midwest town surrounded by cornfields is waking up to the deep rumbling sounds of round engines in the sky. It is anticipated that by midweek the grass surrounding the airport as well as the tarmac will be dotted with close to 200 Stearman biplanes. This annual weeklong event, The National Stearman Fly-In is the single largest gathering of this type of vintage airplanes in the world.
For Stearman owners, pilots, restorers and enthusiasts this week, aptly named Stearman week, is filled with a variety of activities including learning opportunities such as seminars, lunchtime fly outs, dawn patrols, flying contests, evening picnics and various other events. Best of all, participants will have a weeklong opportunity to fly, reconnect and relax with friends.
On the side of town opposite the airport there is a special group of children and adults that anticipate this week from a different point of view. These are the students, parents and staff of Nielson School. If you were to drive by this school you would notice a bright blue bulletin board inside the front windows. On this board is the unmistakable shape of the Stearman airplane emitting puffs of smoke. On those puffs are the words, “The Sky’s the Limit”. These are the words that drive the students of Nielson to reach for their dreams.
You might ask what the connection is between the Stearman and this school of children on the other side of town.
It began almost 20 years ago when one of the Nielson teachers was lamenting the fact that the children at her school rarely got to see and hear the airplanes because Nielson is so far from the airport. This teacher’s husband who is also a pilot but not a Stearman owner began making inquiries in the Stearman office to see if there was anyone who would like to fly over a school so the kids could see the airplanes. As was his nature, pilot Tom Forys, stepped up and said “Of course! Who’s going to navigate?” These words of acceptance began a relationship that has become the central focus of over 2000 young children to date.
Tom Forys was a man with the wind beneath his wings. Flying was his passion and a never-ending dream. His attention to detail was unending whether it had to do with formation flying or friendship. So, he gathered other pilot friends, including a woman pilot and flew formation passes over the school on a bright and sunny morning during Stearman week. This however was only the beginning of an extraordinary day for Nielson children. Tom did not think it was enough to just fly over the school. He felt that it would be just as important for pilots to go into the school and personally visit with the children. He wanted the students to know that pilots were just ordinary people who happened to have a dream. The idea was that if you work hard at your dream you can make it come true. The flying group and their spouses made their way on land across town to the school. At this point they unassumingly reached out to over 400 Kindergarten through fifth graders who were still reeling from what they had just seen in the skies over their playground. Now they were filled with wonder as the pilots described what it was like to actually fly up in the sky.
There were questions of every kind and sort and as each pilot left the classroom, you heard moans and sighs of sadness that their special time together was so short. As Tom left each classroom he was heard to say, “You know, the sky’s the limit and you can do anything you want if you only try”. Each year Tom’s commitment grew. The next year he took the principal up as the team flew over and had another school visit. In the following years the whole school was invited to the airport. One of the pilots from the team took a mascot with him on all of his trips and sent postcards back to the school, which were tracked on a central map for all students and visitors to see. These pilots have become mentors to a whole generation of children.
The impact of this relationship lasts all year long for the students. What you see and hear daily at Nielson School is a direct result of these Stearman pilot’s passion and commitment. The school logo is a Stearman with a circle around it and the words coined by Tom, “The Sky’s the Limit”. Friday folders, magnets, school stationary, T-shirts, sweatshirts and school bags use the same logo. The children are called Nielson Navigators and they live up to high expectations. This can do spirit that has become the theme of Nielson School and cements the teachers, students and families together as a community.
This is a wonderful, true story that hopefully will never end. However things do change over time and sadly in 2001 Tom Forys, in aviation terms “flew west” due to a medical issue. Some of those students first touched by Tom’s passion are now 25-30 years old. One young man attends the fly-in each year and makes a point to meet with Joanne; Tom’s wife just so they can speak of those memories and the impact it has had on his life. The impact will continue.
Wingman and best friend Wally Falardeau taxied into position to carry on Tom’s legacy. For the past 10 years, Wally and his team have continued to reach out to those children on the other side of town that depend on them. They are all heroes in the eyes of the children as a new school year begins. Wally arranges for classes to visit the airport in a very special way. Each classroom of students has the undivided attention of one pilot and his airplane. The questions fly at the pilot and he or she patiently answers them all. The functions of the plane are explained and the students get to see such things as how the stick makes different parts of the plane move. Excitement is thick in the air. Usually other planes are taking off or landing at some point during the airport visit and the kids scream with delight or stand with their mouths dropped. Something very special is happening here. These experiences do not come from a lesson plan put together by a teacher. They originate from the pilots and their enthusiasm for flying.
These efforts and their impact on so many folks both young and old have come simply from a person’s passion for flying. As a pilot, or an enthusiast you may not realize it but you have a lasting impact on many.
This year you have the opportunity to be a part of this grass roots effort. If you would like to join us, we are looking for pilots willing to share their flying experience with the children of Galesburg. We are looking for individuals or groups of pilots that would like to go into the elementary schools on Wednesday morning during Stearman week. About 2 1/2 hours is all that it will take and we’ll supply you with the materials to talk to the kids. The goal is to educate and motivate students and parents to share in the joy of flying by coming to the airport during the fly-in. You won’t believe how good you’ll make the children feel talking Stearmans–or how you’ll feel afterwards. The memories will last forever. To sign up now, contact Stearman pilots, Wally Falardeau at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ed McKeown, email@example.com.