8 Utah Wish Kids get to be F-35 fighter pilots for a day at Hill Air Force Base

Friday , May 25, 2018 - 5:15 AM

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Colton Townsend was 16 and seemingly healthy when he began to notice his skin was turning yellow.

Just a handful of trips to the doctor shortly after the initial discovery revealed something neither Townsend nor his family could have imagined: He was born with a single kidney, and the one he had essentially was shriveling and dying — purging itself from the Ben Lomond High teen’s body.

The nearly two years that followed — which included surgery, countless trips to the hospital and dialysis center — were trying, but the now 18-year-old is healthy once again after a successful kidney transplant in March.

“He’s doing really well,” said Townsend’s mother, LeAnn Wall. “We feel pretty lucky.”

Townsend was one of eight kids from the Utah Make-A-Wish Foundation who spent Thursday with members of Hill Air Force Base’s 388th Fighter Wing, touring the base and getting an insider’s view of life as an F-35 pilot and the next-generation fighter jet they go to war with.

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“We used to sit out at the dialysis center, which isn’t far from here, and watch these jets fly over our heads,” Wall said. “So it’s interesting to come in here and see them so close.”

The Make-A-Wish Foundation is giving Townsend and some of his family members a trip to Norway later this year. Thursday’s “Pilot For A Day” program was one of several secondary activities the foundation offers children in the program, who all have or have had a life-threatening medical condition.

“We’ll grant individual wishes for all these kids, but (Pilot For A Day) is an enhancement — another opportunity to come and have something fun to do,” said Jenny Hortin, volunteer manager for Make-A-Wish. “These kids go through a lot, with their medical journeys and everything they have to go through day by day.”

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Townsend said he wasn’t necessarily interested in fighter jets before Thursday’s event, but he enjoyed learning about Hill and its F-35 program. 

The base’s Ogden Air Logistics Complex performs maintenance on all of the U.S. Air Force F-35s, and the base’s 388th and 419th fighter wings fly the agency’s first operational combat fleet of the fighter jets.

Hill’s first two F-35s arrived in late 2015, and the base is scheduled to receive regular shipments until 2019, when 78 planes will fill out three operational fighter squadrons there.

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Townsend and the other kids watched the fighters taxi and take off from the base’s flightline, with Hill pilots showing off some of the jets’ capabilities from high above the ground. The group also got to check out the plane up close, getting a tour of an F-35 parked inside one of the base’s fighter hangars.

“They’re just these big, flying, metal death machines,” Townsend said. “They do keep us safe and protected. And they’re way expensive, which is kind of cool.”

Capt. Tim "Check" Six briefed the kids on the $100 million plane’s features, telling them how much fuel it holds (about 18,000 pounds), how many Gs, or gravitational force, it can pull (nine) and how many different weapons it’s equipped to carry (nearly 40). The kids also learned about the F-35’s radar, sensors, high-tech helmet, ejection system and its nearly 6,500-pound engine.

Jordyn Greenawalt, a 16-year-old Highland resident, said seeing those engines put to work as the planes hurtled through the air was the most exciting part of the day.

Greenawalt’s mother, April Slaughter, said her daughter’s Asperger syndrome and epilepsy have prevented her from doing many things other kids take for granted.

“This kid has had a really rough go of things — she hasn’t really got to do much, she’s very restricted on activities that she can do,” Slaughter said. “The foundation, they include us in everything. Above and beyond what you would expect them to. It just means so much to (Jordyn) and our family that they care enough to invite us out and include us in all kinds of things.”

Lt. Buck Horn, an F-35 pilot who helped organize the Pilot For A Day activities, said while he hoped to provide the Wish Kids with some entertainment, his team would be the party that benefited the most from Thursday’s event.

“Really, these kids are an inspiration to us,” he said. 

You can reach reporter Mitch Shaw at mishaw@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23 or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/MitchShaw.StandardExaminer.

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