Warrior Aircraft Program takes flight at WRNMMC
ARmy Spc. George Tyler McGibbon manned the controls of his small aircraft and meticulously piloted it on its maiden flight, recently at Naval Support Activity Bethesda.
The take-off was smooth, and then McGibbon, 21, allowed the aircraft to hover, rising and dipping the craft, before a rough landing on the green lawn adjacent to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s America Building.
In addition to piloting the aircraft, McGibbon, a Toms River, New Jersey native, also built it as part of the Warrior Aircraft Program at WRNMMC.
“In October, the Warrior Aircraft Program was granted the only waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to fly small aircraft, also called “drones,” within a 15 mile radius of the Washington, D.C. area, which is a Flight Restricted Zone. It is because of this waiver [WRNMMC] patients participating in the program can finally do small supervised flights in designated areas on NSAB,” explained Marin Reynes, senior station manager for the American Red Cross at WRNMMC.
Working with WRNMMC’s Occupational Therapy team, Red Cross volunteers William Kahl and Dr. Jay Montgomery meet with patients once a week to build the aircraft, learn to fly them on simulators, and then real-time flights, making adjustments to the aircraft as needed, Reynes added.
The program began in 2010 when the father of a service member receiving care at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center created it, Reynes said. “[Kahl] joined to support him, and when WRAMC closed in 2011, [Kahl] worked to keep the program thriving at WRNMMC.”
Although he’s not a therapist, Kahl said he believes the program is beneficial to patients in their recoveries. "Obviously there are numerous benefits to include group interaction, hand-eye coordination, brain training and physical mobility, but I think the most important new additional benefit is the future for job training. If you enjoy flying, this is not just for fun; you can use this as training to fly commercially in the future," he said.
Reynes shared similar sentiments.
“This activity is a part of the service member's actual occupational therapy and goes in their medical file. The program has proven integral in the rehabilitation of [patients with] traumatic brain injury, post-traumatic stress, cognitive deficits, hand injuries and amputations. In addition to the rehabilitation benefits, the program also provides a comfortable environment to reintegrate teamwork and social interaction, serving as a welcomed distraction from the emotional and physical discomfort associated with hospitalization,” Reynes said.
She added anyone receiving treatment in the hospital can participate in the program, but typically those gaining the most benefit are patients here for six months. “This is due to the amount of time it takes to learn to build the aircraft, fly it and make adjustments,” she said.
McGibbon uses not only the Warrior Aircraft Program, but also art and music to heal from the injuries he suffered Dec. 21, 2014 in Kuwait while training for an Iraq mission. The Soldier suffered a TBI and multiple fractures during a roll-over of the vehicle. He spent more than 60 days in a coma, and was treated at military treatment and Veterans Affairs facilities in Kuwait, Germany, New Jersey and at WRNMMC.
The variety of therapies McGibbon receives at WRNMMC – physical, occupational, art, music and the Warrior Aircraft Program – help improve his speech, coordination and cognitive skills, as well as his overall recovery, he explained.
“I’m just focusing on my therapy, trying to get physically and mentally better so I’m capable of doing more jobs,” McGibbon said