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Cancer survivor becomes pilot for a day

ALTUS AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. (AFNS) -- John Austin survived infant leukemia, seven surgeries, chemotherapy, respiratory failure and dozens of blood transfusions. He can now add Air Force pilot to that list.

Thanks to the 58th Airlift Squadron here and the Altus Air Force Base Pilot for a Day program, John spent the day exploring airplanes, fire trucks and the base air traffic control tower.

John was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when he was four months old, and his parents were told that he had a 45 percent chance of surviving to age 5. He completed his treatment in October, and the Austin family is finally beginning to ease into normal life post-treatment. 

"He's a typical two-and-a-half year old boy -- he gets into trouble, he's silly and funny, he loves planes and dinosaurs, and it has just been really awesome," said John's mother, Kristy. "He's only been off treatment since October, so this is a whole new world for us, just to have him at home playing and being silly. So we're just really excited to get to do normal things with him."

The Austin family, stationed at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, is the first family to take part in the pilot for a day program, which recently restarted after a period of inactivity.

The day began with an exclusive fire department convoy from the front gate to the 58th AS headquarters, where John and his mother rode in one of the big red fire engines from the 97th Civil Engineer Squadron. At the 58th AS, John received his standard-issue flight suit, donned with a U.S. flag, 58th AS patch, personalized name patch and a set of colonel insignia on his shoulders.

John earned his pilot wings in a crowded auditorium when Col. Bill Spangenthal, the 97th Air Mobility Wing commander, pinned them on John's flight suit. Everyone in the room applauded the newest and youngest pilot on base.

The family was then off to the flightline, where John had the opportunity to play in the cockpit of a C-17 Globemaster III, operate the controls of KC-135 Stratotanker's refueling boom and shoot water from fire trucks. John also watched a military working dog demonstration. He laughed and told the dog, "Good job," as the dog latched onto a bad guy's arm who was trying to run away.

After naptime, John continued his tour, where he flew in the C-17 simulator. Maj. Erick Brough copiloted the simulator, pointed out Mount Rainier, Washington, from the cockpit, and then flew the family over their home in Oklahoma City.

The family was overwhelmed with the support of everyone they met. John's father said that their experience at Altus AFB was characteristic of the Air Force family -- people caring for each other in a time of need.

"It's nothing but a phone call and everybody wants to be involved," said Master Sgt. Keith Hackney, who coordinated John's visit. "Everybody is willing to drop what they're doing for a cause like this."