Although 97th Flying Training Squadron T-6 Instructor Pilot Lt. Col. Jeremy Downs didn’t know his neighbor’s grandson Connor at all, when he learned that the preschooler had been diagnosed with cancer and that the child wanted to be a pilot someday, Downs made up his mind to provide Connor with the most memorable day possible.
He couldn’t do it alone, though, so he enlisted help from 97th FTS teammate T-38 Introduction to Fighter Fundamentals Instructor Pilot Maj. Elliott Nelsen.
Downs and Nelsen, who met in 1997, share many career similarities and have spent a good portion of their careers in the same places. Commissioned in 2001, Downs spent 12 years on active duty and was hired by the Air Force Reserves in February 2013. Nelsen was also commissioned in 2001 and started his Reserve career in October 2013. Former active duty F-15 pilots who crossflowed into the remotely piloted aircraft field, both reached a decision point in their career when they chose to accept Reserve opportunities in order to do what was best for their families.
“Eight-day work weeks, rotating shifts, no stability or schedule - that’s not the kind of life you want for your family,” said Downs, who has a 12-year-old daughter.
Nelsen, who’s married with three kids, agreed with that assessment. Spending time with his family is the number one priority for the man who, in reference to his marriage, said “I out-punted my coverage.”
Neither knew what to expect as Reserve instructor pilots, and six years later, neither has regrets.
Peers and teammates for more than 20 years, it was only natural that T-6 flight commander Downs would seek support from his friend, who is the 80th Flying Training Wing functional checkride flight chief (a total force integration position).
Between them, Downs and Nelsen arranged a full day of activities for Connor, including pre-flight planning, flight briefing, full life support visit, and an opportunity to fly the simulator. They even arranged to have Connor’s name added to one of the aircraft, as if he were the aircraft commander.
Nelsen agreed to help because “the idea had merit,” but mostly because “I believe we can change the conversation, can be the change agents of generosity and goodwill in the world, even if only in a small way,” he said.
The son of missionaries, Nelsen believes that love is part of the very fiber of human beings, and opportunities like this offer a place to share that love.
More pragmatic, but no less moved by the opportunity, Downs acknowledged that Connor would never be able to fly a plane for the Air Force. “But that’s not the point. He’ll never be a pilot, but that doesn’t mean he can’t love flying,” said Downs. “I remember as a child waiting to be able to fly, and the feeling when I would see a plane in the air. Connor should have this memory to help him through the tough times.
Their good deed wasn’t supposed to be public. They weren’t looking for accolades. It was just the right thing to do, so they did it.
“The 97th did this. We all did this because it’s cool and we care. We want to make life good for other people,” said Downs.
And for Connor, they did just that, making his dream of being an aircraft commander reality, even if only for a day.