By Ann Marie Shambaugh
Caroline Hoy was working as a social media contractor when she was asked to post a job opening that caught her eye.
“Good communication skills. Enjoys being with people. Aviation background a plus. I’m reading it and thinking, ‘That’s me!,’” she said. “It was a really special sort of culmination of some of my background in one position.”
In March, the Carmel resident became the first executive director of Flight1, a nonprofit that teaches children facing hardships to fly – literally. During the free three-year program, participants spend time in a simulator before making three flights in a real airplane.
“The main point is for them to literally be able to take the controls and feel the confidence of being the decision-maker in their lives,” Hoy said. “There’s just something really special about that sense of control when you are the one piloting the airplane wherever you want it to go. When they get out they just have a spring in their step that is very heartwarming.”
Sense of direction
For Tommy Aldrich, Flight1 helped provide a sense of direction after the death of his father in 2012 left his world in shambles.
His mother, Angie Aldrich, recalled an afternoon when her son ran out of school crying on an especially difficult day.
“I said, ‘Guess what you get to do tonight, and not one other person here gets to do this. You get to fly an airplane!,’” she said. “He stopped and looked at me like, ‘Wow, you’re right.’ It gave him something else to think about, a positive thing. Very few people at 9 years old get to fly a plane.”
Tommy Aldrich, now 13, said Flight1 helped him face his fears after his father died.
“I never flew a plane before, and I was scared at first. I was also scared when my dad passed away,” he said. “Flight1 gave me a lot of courage when I flew the plane, and that kind of helped me fly with my dad in spirit.”
Hoy knows a thing or two about the psychological benefits of flying. The Knightstown native got her pilot’s license at age 21 “for fun” after being inspired to switch her studies from public relations to aviation management.
“It was one of those beautiful Indiana summer or late fall days where the sky is blue and there’s all these airplanes flying over,” Hoy said. “I saw them and thought, ‘That looks like a pretty good way to spend your day.’”
She worked for an airline for a few years but left after the 9/11 terrorist attacks took a toll on the industry.
“It wasn’t a great atmosphere,” she said.
It was after she got married and started a family that she began working with social media and came across the job opening for Flight1. Now her days are full of fundraising, planning and meeting with families for the nonprofit.
“I love meeting with people and having lunches and networking,” Hoy said. “I enjoy meeting the families and the kids, too. It keeps it really meaningful.”
Hoy also feels that she is able to relate to families going through the program because tragedy struck her own family in 2013. Her oldest daughter, Audrey, died suddenly at age 4. Doctors determined she had a common virus that led to viral meningitis and multiple organ failure.
“It was such a shock,” Hoy said, adding that Audrey had been healthy her whole life. “You never expect something like that.”
Now, Hoy reaches out to other families in the midst of difficult times. Flight1 primarily accepts children who are facing health challenges, have an ill family member or have recently suffered the death of a loved one. She enjoys watching the difference a flight can make in their lives, and she’s hoping others will, too.
“I would invite anyone who’s curious about what we do to come to one of our flight events and see firsthand the kids and their faces when they get out of the airplane. It’s something that’s hard to capture in words,” Hoy said. “Once I experienced it, it hit home for me in a very touching way of what it can actually accomplish.”
How to help
Flight1 can work with approximately 45 students at a time, but Hoy is hoping to expand that to 100 in her first year on the job.
The nonprofit doesn’t own its own aircraft but rents them from Indianapolis Executive Airport in Zionsville or Indianapolis Regional Airport in Greenfield. Hoy anticipates that people volunteering their planes for the program will be “crucial to our next growth step,” she said.
‘Capturing the moment’
As Angi Aldrich watched how Flight1 transformed her son’s life, she noticed it helped her cope with the death of her husband, too. Now, she’s serving as a board member and giving back artistically through a series of 24 paintings “capturing the moment” when they become a pilot.
“All of them have wonderful smiles,” she said. “They have that twinkle in their eye. I was trying to capture that, the moment they forgot they were sick.”
Flight1 is using the paintings in a traveling exhibit to promote the organization, but Angi eventually hopes to give them to families or program sponsors.