photos by Mark Marquez
As Paul Hansen talks to a group of kids with special needs and their families at the Georgetown Municipal Airport, he is suddenly interrupted by a hug from a boy with Down syndrome. Paul doesn’t seem to mind, later saying that hugs and smiles are why he started his nonprofit organization Flying Vikings 12 years ago. “There’s no agenda. I’m not out to impress anybody. I just want to make someone smile,” he says.
There were 24 of those smiles the day before Halloween this year as kids descended on the airport dressed as everything from a chef to a prison inmate to Scooby Doo. They soared through the skies with volunteer pilots, even taking control of the plane for a few minutes during an aviation adventure provided by Flying Vikings, which gives free plane rides to kids ages 6-18 who have a chronic illness or disability.
For some parents, the event was about giving kids like 10-year-old Westin Thomas the chance to feel normal. “I get to be the captain and fly you everywhere!” Westin, who has Costello syndrome, tells his mom, Angelica. “It’s great, seeing his smile and how happy it makes him,” she says. “He has a lot of challenges. It’s nice to do something that doesn’t involve hospitals or doctors.”
Other parents saw the event as an opportunity even typical kids don’t get. Donna Adams brought her sons, 11-year old Cole and 12-year-old Nathan, who are both autistic. “No one gets to do this,” she says. “Not even regular kids. With group activities, [special needs kids] are always last, always behind. Flying Vikings gives them a step up. For 30 minutes, they don’t have special needs. They’re pilots.”
A BETTER PLAN
While working in banking and investments, he felt God tell him, “I have a better plan.” Paul was asked to help with a mentor program for at-risk kids while handling the Burlington Police Department’s investments, which inspired him to launch another organization to help kids in need.
Flying Vikings was born out of Paul’s family history of aviation, a lifelong desire to fly, and a servant’s heart. “After praying, it was time to make a difference as opposed to status, title, and chasing what society defines as success,” he says. “I walked away from security, steady pay, and career advancement.”
Others have joined Paul in his mission to bring joy to kids with special needs, including nonprofit organization Share the Will, which sponsored the Georgetown event, and food donors Chick-fil-A and Domino’s. He looks forward to Flying Vikings’ next chapter in 2022 and hopes it will impact more and more children and families. “We just want to make a small difference while having a larger impact upon society,” he says. “We can only continue this by seeking community involvement; individuals and businesses with big hearts for our support.”
Click to learn more about Flying Vikings.