In her custom-made, olive-green flight suit, 11-year-old Esmeralda Quinonez-Jauregui deftly flies over south-central Kansas, under the tutelage of Air Force Capt. Jon Yates.
“Now what you’re about to see here is a better landing than an actual pilot,” Yates said Thursday as Esmeralda glided the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker simulator to a smooth landing, gripping controls that were easily two times the size of her hands.
“She’s a natural,” he said during the group’s departure from the simulator at McConnell Air Force Base.
Esmeralda and her family drove four hours from Ulysses to come to McConnell for its “Pilot for a Day” program with the 384th Air Refueling Squadron.
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Esmeralda has leukemia, but has been in remission for more than a year now.
The program, a national initiative of the Air Force, brings seriously ill children to bases to get a taste of life in the Air Force. It’s an experience that is not limited to terminal illnesses, according to the Air Force’s website; it is designed to aid recovery of the child.
“It’s a really rewarding thing,” Yates said. “It’s really fun for the girl and it also does a lot for the guys we work with.”
Promptly at 8 a.m., Yates was standing by the side of the road at the base, waiting for Esmeralda and her family. They had gotten lost on MacArthur Road and were 30 minutes late. Yates’ wife, Meggin, took pictures throughout the morning to make a scrapbook of the day. She said her husband tried his best to make it a memorable day for Esmeralda.
“That’s just how Jon is,” she said. “When he has something like this, it’s really important to him.”
Esmeralda, in a rhinestone-studded black cap and flip-flops, quietly soaked in the experience, going through the daily briefing with the rest of the 384th and piloting multimillion-dollar simulators.
When she was presented with her flight suit, every service member in the auditorium applauded.
“You’re a member of our wing,” one of the wing’s leaders said, giving her a patch for her suit. “You’ve got a lot of brothers and sisters now.”
Esmeralda said her favorite part of the day was the working dog demonstration, where Air Force members demonstrated how their dogs are trained to respond to a threat.
“This is your day,” Yates said to Esmeralda. “This is all you.”