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Unusual Bozeman camp teaches young cancer survivors how to fly

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Landed

Students and flight instructors taking part in the Big Sky Kids Cancer Survivor's Camp arrive at Summit Aviation in Bozeman after a morning flying lesson.

BOZEMAN — Young cancer survivors have taken flight from their troubles in small planes over Montana’s Rocky Mountains in an unusual program.

“The thrill of being in the air is so freeing,” said Nina Garkavi, 30, from Seattle. “You stop thinking about the things wrong with your body and get to be in control because you are literally flying the plane.”

Garkavi returned to Bozeman this week to reunite with a group who had helped her earn her wings at the sixth annual Big Sky Kids Cancer Survivor Flight Camp, one of five summer oncology camps offered through Eagle Mount.

“I always hear this is the most incredible experience they’ve ever had,” said Kara Erickson, program director of the camps for Eagle Mount. “After the first flight, they are kind of in shock.

“It’s such a unique, liberating experience for them.”

Dream maker

Summit Aviation president Ben Walton and student Chelsea Espinoza, of Ronan, return from a flying lesson over the Madison Mountains on Wednesday. Walton created the camp for cancer survivors and flies with students during the week.

Creator

The camp was the brainchild of Summit Aviation president Ben Walton. He proposed the camp to Eagle Mount after seeing his mother suffer through cancer and losing his sister-in-law to the disease.

“It was one of those times you feel like you want to do something,” he said.

Eagle Mount was happy to help facilitate, screening young adults from the region — as well as across the nation — to participate in a week-long flight school. So far, including this year, 24 people have taken part.

“I’ve never heard of another program like this one,” Erickson said. “It’s pretty cool we have it in Montana, especially with all of the mountains and the beautiful scenery.”

The camp is so important to Walton that he takes part in many of the activities over the five days, including returning to teach in the company’s two-seater Diamond DA-20 airplanes.

“To me it’s really special just to be around these people,” he said. “They have a different outlook and attitude on life. They have this contagious energy, and they don’t take anything for granted.”

Young survivor

Cassie King, of Billings, is among former students who attended the Big Sky Kids Cancer Survivor's Camp at Summit Aviation in Bozeman.

Sharing stories

It’s hard to believe the airborne campers can be so upbeat considering what they’ve been through.

Cassie King: For more than two years King struggled with depression and what was believed to be an eating disorder as doctors tried to help her. Then the real reason for the problems was discovered. She had “one large” brain tumor.

“Because the brain controls so many functions, it can look like a lot of different things,” she said.

Now 28 years old, the Billings woman has been cancer free for almost 15 years.

“A lot of people question why this happened to me,” she said. “I’ve never believed that God picks and chooses, but I do believe he has a way of turning these challenges into something totally beautiful and greater than anything we can imagine. And Big Sky Kids is part of that.”

Billings participants

Student Michael Hill, of Billings, and instructor Jess Padden walk off the flight line during the Big Sky Kids Cancer Survivor's Camp at Summit Aviation in Bozeman. Cancer survivors spend a week flying and learning about aviation.

Michael Hill: Billings native Hill, now 24, was diagnosed at 6 with a Wilms tumor on his kidney. Although subjected to a traumatic change in his life, Hill said the diagnosis was much more difficult for his parents who saw their child inexplicably lose half his body weight.

Hill just graduated from Montana State University with a masters in accounting. He was looking forward to piloting a plane to Billings to see his mother, Maureen Maloughney.

“It’s been a pretty good mix of flying and learning the whole operation here,” he said.

Morgan Johnson: Gallatin Valley resident Johnson was 12 years old when his dog died, his mother lost her job, and he was diagnosed with leukemia. A year-and-a-half later he relapsed. Now 23, he’s been cancer-free for nine years.

“One thing about childhood cancer is that it takes away some of your childhood, so this is really a cool experience,” Johnson said of the flight camp. “It exposes you to incredible stuff.”

On the first day campers do a pre-flight check and then take off, he said. “That was fun.”

Campers

Current and former students and flight instructors gather for lunch in the Summit Aviation hangar during the Big Sky Kids Cancer Survivor's Camp in Bozeman. 

Nina Garkavi: It’s tough to top camper Garkavi’s vacation-gone-bad story.

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While suffering debilitating headaches during a Florida holiday with her mother when she was 21 years old, Garkavi relented and agreed to visit a doctor. The doctor told her to cancel her flight back to New York City because she had brain cancer.

Her mother, who had met her in Florida for the vacation, spent her birthday in the waiting room of the intensive care unit as Garkavi underwent 10 hours of surgery.

“I’m definitely very lucky and thankful,” Garkavi said. “But my 20s were taken away.”

Chelsea Espinoza: Two years ago Espinoza, a 29-year-old Ronan resident, was diagnosed with brain cancer. She said the flight school has helped her “feel normal again.” Now in remission, she said she realizes she is capable of more than she ever thought possible. The flight camp has helped emphasized that.

“It reminds you that life doesn’t stop after cancer,” she said. “A lot more opportunities have unfolded.”

She praised Walton for starting the camp.

“Ben can make the impossible happen,” she said.

Historic plane

Bozeman antique airplane owner Tim Lynn shows students his Boeing Stearman biplane in Bozeman. 

Flight exposure

During the five-day camp the participants are introduced to a variety of topics. On Wednesday after flying from Bozeman to Ennis and back over the snowy pinnacles of the Madison Range in the morning, they toured the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport’s control tower and then were shown a historic rebuilt biplane. Later they would go to ground school to discuss the perfect landing.

“This is an opportunity to expose them to aviation,” said Jen Lawson of Summit Aviation, who helps coordinate the activities. “We put them in a cockpit and they’re not limited. It’s freeing and liberating.”

Two of the camp’s participants have even gone on to careers as commercial pilots following their five-day introduction.

Summit Aviation seeks volunteer instructors from across the state, like Missy Harlow from Helena, and also provides three of its own instructors, like 26-year-old Jess Padden who grew up in Billings. Padden even went to Summit for his flight school.

“It’s interesting going from a student to teaching,” he said. “Suddenly you’re the one who knows what they’re doing. It’s a unique skill to have, and so fun.”

Padden enjoys teaching the cancer camp's students because they are so excited to fly and there is less pressure since flight school is only part of the camp.

Tour

Flight instructor Jess Padden, right, leads students in the Big Sky Kids Cancer Survivor's Camp in a tour of the busy air traffic control tower in Bozeman. Students in this year's camp are, from left, Michael Hill, Richard Ward, Kylee Tyson and Chelsea Espinoza.

Last flight

The camp culminated Friday with a group trip over the mountains to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks with a stopover in Driggs, Idaho.

“This is Ben’s favorite week of the year,” Lawson said. “For all of us this is so much fun.”

Once the camp is over, it is back to work for Walton and his company of 50 employees, 17 of whom are instructors.

In addition to flight training, Summit Aviation also provides charter aircraft, sales, and management, Lawson said. The company has a fleet of Phenom 300 jets, as well as a larger Hawker 850 X8 jet that all float around the country as well as fly internationally. Walton started the company 20 years ago in Bozeman in a small office with a borrowed plane.

Between camps, Walton and his Summit Aviation staff are also busy trying to find sponsors and raise money for the following year’s camp, which amounts to about $12,000 to cover the campers’ expenses for housing, transportation, food, and the cost of operating the aircraft.

“It’s not a cheap camp to run but it’s so much fun and definitely worth it,” Lawson said.

“I think we have something special here — a flight school in a beautiful area,” Walton said.

We have very passionate instructors who love to fly and what they do.”

When a student finally solos, they get to ring a bell in the office.

“The flight school is the most vibrant part of the business,” he said. “It keeps me young.”

“I love hanging out with the Eagle Mount crew and having Summit come alongside is so cool,” said King, who, like many of the Eagle Mount campers, has returned to volunteer and act as a counselor for other campers. “To see people so passionate about what they do and sharing it with folks like us is special.”

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