“It was outrageously fun, and in the end, I felt like some of my limits as to what I could do had increased. Right as we left the last day, driving back to the hotel, I had this feeling like we had won. We had, in some way, triumphed; went from cancer to flying. This rejection of the things that keep us down is why there should be another flight camp.” - Morgan Johnson, 2015
Eagle Mount and Summit Aviation Annual Cancer Survivor's Camp
Cancer patients who are in remission often hear the phrase, “The sky is the limit” in the wake of their hard-earned good health, but Summit Aviation makes the common saying a reality for a handful of young cancer survivors through the annual Big Sky Kids Cancer Survivor Flight Camp.
Since 2014, Summit Aviation has hosted a weeklong camp for young adults who have survived cancer in which the participants take to the skies. Over the course of five summer days, the four chosen participants learn the basics of the aviation industry first hand.
Each morning starts with participants and their certified flight instructors -- volunteers from Summit’s CFI staff – conducting a pre-flight inspection on Summit’s aircraft before the group gathers for their daily flight lessons. Participants learn basic aircraft control, aircraft maneuvers, and by the end of the week, perform unassisted take-offs and landings!
Ashley Thostenson, who participated in the 2015 camp, said she was pleasantly surprised by how their instructors enabled the students to experience the life of a pilot. “I was thinking that it would be a fun week of sightseeing,” Thostenson said. “Little did I know that within two hours of being introduced to the Summit Team and my plane, I would be in almost complete control of the aircraft thousands of feet in the air.”
All flight lessons take place above some of the best views Montana has to offer, including routes to Spanish Peaks, Big Sky and Bear Trap Canyon, as well as over the Bridger Mountains and Paradise Valley.
After the morning flight, the students and instructors return to Summit Aviation headquarters for a themed lunch, which often has the students, instructors, and staff in costumes and stiches, said Jason Epp, another 2015 camp participant.
“Overall, this was an amazing experience and a dream come true for me,” Epp said. “All of the instructors were so great, and we had a riot hanging out and joking around with them. … I had the time of my life doing two of the greatest things in the world – hanging around with friends and flying planes.”
Afternoons consist of tours of Bozeman International Airport facilities, including emergency response operations, the air traffic control tower, and private jets. The days end with a ground lesson, where instructors go over flight controls and aerodynamics, helpful tips for landing smoothly, and how to plan a cross-country flight, which also becomes a reality for the camp participants.
Each year, students and instructors plan a cross country flight in preparation for the participants’ graduation from camp. In a two-hour journey over Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park and then to Driggs, Idaho, the students have a chance to demonstrate the flight skills they’ve learned over the course of the week. Participants in the 2014 camp even had the opportunity to see Old Faithful erupt while they flew directly overhead. In Driggs, the group tours Teton Aviation Center’s Warbird Collection before making their final flight back to Bozeman.
The camp is a partnership between Summit Aviation and Eagle Mount a Bozeman-based nonprofit that provides people with disabilities and young people with cancer with therapeutic recreational opportunities. Big Sky Kids is an Eagle Mount program that hosts oncology camps for young cancer patients and survivors. The camps each focus on different recreational activities and Montana adventures, such as fishing, horseback riding, kayaking, skiing, white-water rafting, zip-lining, and – as of 2014 – flight.
The Cancer Survivor Flight Camp is funded completely by donors and fundraising. Though cancer survivors attend the camp at no cost, it costs more than $2,000 per participant to host the camp. Support from our generous sponsors and an incredibly supportive community make this life-changing experience possible. Crowdfunding accounted for approximately one-third of the camp costs in 2016.
Summit Aviation President Ben Walton, who began the program after personally seeing the effects of cancer, believes that to say the camp was a success, “would be an understatement.”
“I can say wholeheartedly that this has been the most incredible aviation experience of my life,” Walton said after the first camp in 2014. “These young adults have spent a large part of their lives fighting for their lives. If anyone deserves an experience like this, they do. I know they treasure each day more than we do, but they also fear each day the cancer might return. My hope is that this experience will give them new confidence, that it will help them overcome their fears, and that they all can become pilots someday soon."
For one pilot – 2015 camp participant Nina Garkavi – the camp changed her outlook on life.
“Flying over Montana gave me a new perspective, an entirely different angle: zoomed out and from above,” Garkavi said. “I felt overwhelmingly alive and free. It reminded me that I could fly over every problem that comes my way. If I simply turn on the mindset, delicately balance the pedals to stay on track, slowly start pulling the joystick – I’m headed upward, flying over the clouds. The wind is always unpredictable and turbulence may occur, but nevertheless, it is possible to soar through it. Flight camp proved to me that challenges can lead to amazing experiences. Perhaps the last three years of learning to use my left hand (after cancer affected her dominant right hand) made me a better pilot than I ever could have been. It’s been weeks since I was soaring above beautiful mountains, but in my mind, I am still flying high."