NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) – There were a lot of flights that pushed back from the gates at Norfolk International Airport on Saturday, March 25, but none quite as special as flight 9677 on an American Eagle Embraer ERJ 175 jet.
Its destination? Azalea, a neighborhood in Norfolk near where the airport is located.
No, this flight never left the ground, but its passengers certainly reached new heights nonetheless.
The plane was carrying the 52 participants of the airport’s 2023 Wings for All program.
Launched by The Arc in 2014, the Wings for All event allows people experiencing autism or intellectual and developmental disabilities the chance to “practice” the airport experience before taking a real commercial flight.
Last Saturday was the third time Norfolk’s airport hosted the event in partnership with Hampton-based Versability Resources, and the first since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Keltie Bransford, Versability’s marketing and development manager, said it’s important for events like this to come back.
“We were thrilled to partner with The Arc of the U.S. and Norfolk International Airport on Saturday to bring Wings for All to the 757,” Bransford said. “This airport rehearsal program is a wonderful opportunity for people with disabilities of all ages to gain confidence with air travel so they may explore all the world has to offer!”
When they say “rehearsal” they truly mean it.
Participants go to the check-in counter, receive a boarding pass, proceed through TSA screening, and experience the boarding process and in-flight safety procedures just as they would for a real flight.
Steve Sterling, the executive vice president for the Norfolk Airport Authority, said those processes may same routine to the average person. But to someone with autism or other intellectual and developmental disabilities, airports and airplanes can be overwhelming and full of unexpected and overstimulating variables, such as bright lights, noises, unnatural interactions and crowds. It could cause a person to be fearful of flying.
As a father of a child with developmental disabilities himself, having the chance for repetition is key.
“Understand the areas where they have difficulties. (Wings for All) gives them a chance to practice through the routine to get comfortable with it,” Sterling said.
But it also provides the opportunity to ease the fears of parents, guardians and those who work at the airport.
“They’re able to find out free of charge without having to risk purchasing an airline ticket to find out the hard way,” Sterling said. “The employees can learn on how to assist the special guests on traveling and navigating through the airport.”
That’s exactly why Sarah Shores and her son Aidyn Kleczewski, 17, signed up for the program after seeing it advertised on social media.
Kleczewski is autistic and Shores hadn’t traveled with him since he was an infant.
“We signed up right away,” Shores said. “I kind of wanted to see how he would handle it … I get nervous just because I don’t know how he’s going to react or how other people are going to react to him … Everybody has been super helpful explaining everything and they seem happy that we are here which is nice.”
Diamond Grooms signed up with her son Landon, 5, for a similar reason.
“A great opportunity to try to test out getting on an airplane coming to an airport, cause it be his first time,” Grooms said. She said they have plans to travel to Disney in December.
Following the program, she felt a lot more confident.
“It was great, it was a nice experience. Landon did really well throughout the whole time,” Grooms said. “Nobody should let fear keep them from traveling.”
Sterling said the airport plans to hold another Wings for All event in the future and thanks all the different companies and volunteers who made the program possible.
“We have a goal to make this as realistic and get as far into that travel process as possible,” Sterling said.
For the first time, American Airlines arranged for the plane participants boarded to push back from the gate and taxi around the airport.
“We have a dream one day of the aircraft actually taking off and experiencing the takeoff and the land,” Sterling said.
To find out when the next Wings for All event will be, the airport recommends following their social media page.
Check WAVY.com for the latest updates.