Nova Scotia

Pilot's program for children with special needs takes flight

Dimitri Neonakis, founder of Dream Wings, said he wanted to give back by inviting special needs children to sit in the co-pilot's chair.

'The experience was something that I can't describe. It was beautiful,' says Dimitri Neonakis

Billy Holt, 13, and Dimitri Neonakis of Dream Wings. The pair went flying with Billy's dad, Kelly Holt, last Sunday as part of a program to take children with special needs up in the air. (Lara Cassidy)

A new program is giving Nova Scotia children with special needs a chance to ride in the co-pilot's seat.

Dream Wings took to the skies out of the Debert Airport last Sunday, after its founder posted on Facebook to see if there was any interest.

"I was actually a little skeptical to put the post on social media, but the response was overwhelming," said Dimitri Neonakis, who has been flying planes as a hobby for about 20 years.

"Four days later, we had our first four flights. We had six children and their parents and everything went great, it was awesome. A lot of happy faces up there."

'He was so excited'

One of the first passengers was 13-year-old Billy Holt of Lower Sackville.

He rode in the co-pilot's chair and said he liked wearing the big headset.

"It meant a lot to Billy," said his dad, Kelly Holt. 

"All the way home he was just kind of vibrating, he was so excited."

Billy Holt, 13, rode in an airplane last Sunday thanks to a new program called Dream Wings. He sat in the co-pilot's chair and said he liked wearing the headset. (Lara Cassidy)

Holt said he's thrilled about the program and described Neonakis as a "very thoughtful guy."

"He was so welcoming, he made Billy just feel like a king really, like he was his co-pilot," Holt said. "He really made Billy feel included and special. I think it's just wonderful that he's doing this."

Conquering fears

The flights are completely free for the children and their families.

Neonakis said he hopes the kids will learn about airplanes, have some fun and even face their fears.

​"My last flight was a 12-year-old named Gabey and his dad. As soon as he came near the airplane, I noticed that he was shaking. He was afraid," Neonakis said. 

"So I told him that aviation is very safe. As a matter of fact, I told him that the most dangerous part of this trip was the drive to the airport with his dad. He understood that, he was a very smart kid."

Twelve-year-old Gabey, right, faced his fear of flying over the weekend. He's pictured here with his dad Jesus Flores, left, and Dimitri Neonakis, centre. (Lara Cassidy)

Neonakis said he explained what he was doing as they were getting ready to take off.

"The more he knew, the more comfortable he was getting. So when I turned the plane around and I took off, as soon as we broke ground he said, 'Are we flying?' I said, 'Oh yeah, buddy, we're flying.' He said, 'Is that it?' I said, 'Yeah, that's it,'" Neonakis said, laughing.

"The fact that Gabey fought his fear, it was very important to me ... He's not afraid anymore. That's a big thing for a child to fight his fear at 12 years old. To me, it's triumph. It's something great."

Already booked for this weekend

Neonakis said even though Dream Wings is all about giving back, it had a big impact on him, too.

"It never hit me until I got in my car to go home. The experience was something that I can't describe. It was beautiful. Absolutely beautiful."

Neonakis said he's already booked solid for this weekend.

He hopes other pilots and organizations will create programs of their own to give back to children with special needs.

"I can say with certainty, it was one of the best flights of my life."

Neonakis can be reached at (902) 402-7761 or by email at dneonakis@gmail.com

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