The Copp family of Waco has been on TV and met a sports star, but this weekend they were blessed with a comparatively smaller yet higher-altitude joy.
Lawson Copp, 7, and Calan Copp, 10 — along with their dad, Jody — were among 20 children with special needs who got the chance to be pilots and fly over College Station on Saturday morning. Volunteer licensed pilots with the Texas-based nonprofit Flying Vikings brought their personal planes to Astin Aviation and Easterwood Airport, giving children with physical or mental disabilities and terminal illnesses a day of adventure.
Lawson and Calan both suffer from a rare mitochondrial condition that causes cognitive and physical delays in their growth. Both use wheelchairs, and Calan is assisted by a service dog named Jaia.
“It was pretty exhilarating for them, and that makes them feel special,” said the boys’ mom, Melissa Copp, who kept Calan’s golden retriever mix company on the tarmac. “They got to meet an amazing pilot, and in the plane they were pilots for a minute. They could forget all the medical things going on in their lives for a little while.”
The Copps are from Waco and were featured on an episode of HGTV’s Fixer Upper, during which Chip and Joanna Gaines — along with pro athlete Tim Tebow — built them an ADA-accessible house. The family had taken a free flight with the Flying Vikings nonprofit last year when the organization hosted an event in Waco. When mom and dad, both Texas A&M alumni, found out that the Flying Vikings would be in College Station this month, they couldn’t resist signing up again and making the 90-mile drive.
“[We felt] the chance to actually be up in plane and see Kyle Field below was going to be amazing,” Melissa said.
The Copp boys loaded onto the plane from their wheelchairs with ease, and for 30 minutes the children and Jody soared over Brazos County and the Texas A&M campus with pilot Grady Chism in his Cessna 172. Jody Copp said he once had dreams of being a pilot, but when he realized he wouldn’t have the money to acquire the proper hours, he had to give it up.
“This flight was very special for me, because I went to flight school,” he said. “And going up with Lawson and Calan, doing something I love, [sharing] that with them — it was very special.”
“Now he got to be with his children in a plane, and he didn’t think he could ever do that,” Melissa added. “It wouldn’t be possible without Flying Vikings.”
Both Lawson and Calan told The Eagle that they want to become pilots once they reach adulthood, although Calan would like to balance that with becoming a video game designer.
The Copp family had a bit more seniority with the Flying Vikings experience than pilot Cade Martin. Saturday was his first time volunteering himself and his aircraft — a five-seat Cirrus — for a Flying Vikings experience, but the father and grandfather knew he wanted to do something special for children.
Martin completed three 30-minute flights from Easterwood, co-piloting with a total of five children with Down syndrome.
“They needed minimal help getting into the plane and buckled up,” he said. “They just loved the headsets that make them like a real pilot. They were so excited and smiling, so overjoyed to talk over the speaker and hear air traffic control talk to me. The flying part was very comfortable. My plane has screens similar to a video game. … While making turns, they could look out windows, see the river, the town, the football fields.”
The experience will keep Martin coming back and volunteering more.
“My heart was overwhelmed with the joy of seeing their excitement and the smiles,” he said. “There was a girl named Ava who gave me a hug and said, ‘I love the plane, and I love you.’ That made my heart swell.”
Flying Vikings founder and president Paul Hensen of Belton, a retired commercial pilot, said he started this organization 10 years ago with just himself and his own plane. The nonprofit now includes 300 pilot volunteers, serving thousands of children across several Southern states each year.
“I was in corporate America doing investments and felt like there had to be more to life,” Hensen said. “When I get too old, I want to know I made a difference and not worry about my ego.”
Hensen said that the organization is called ‘Flying Vikings’ because his last name is Danish, and his own father always said, ‘Toughen up, you’re a Viking. And Vikings can get through anything!’ Hensen said he was inspired by that, and he wanted to empower special-needs children.
“The kids here are going through something hard, and I said, ‘Okay, I understand it.’ ”
Hensen hopes to return to College Station with his program sometime in the fall when Texas A&M isn’t having a home football game. He noted that flights are offered on a first-come-first-serve basis, and slots tend to fill up fast. Anyone interested in learning more about the Flying Vikings and their schedule can go to flyingvikings.org or call 254-300-1476.