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For anyone who has participated (or even just seen the videos), the Special Olympics Airlift (SOA) is one of the leading “feel-good” experiences in aviation. It started in 1987 as the Citation Airlift, and since then, close to 10,000 athletes and coaches have flown as guests on general aviation aircraft, mostly business and personal jets, from their home states to the Special Olympics World Games and USA Games at locations throughout North America.

For the eighth running of the SOA, event coordinator Textron Aviation is targeting participation from 228 Textron Citations, King Airs, Premiers, Beechjets, and Hawkers to transport more than 4,000 athletes and coaches to the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, Florida. The arrival date is June 4, 2022. A week later, on June 12, the cycle will reverse, and the volunteer operators will bring the competitors home. Aircraft gross weights will be a bit higher, as many of the passengers will be wearing freshly earned gold, silver, and bronze medals—and mile-wide smiles.

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Photo Courtesy of Textron Aviation

Volunteer participants include not only aircraft owners and crews, but also dispatchers, line staff at the destination airport, baggage handlers, ground transportation, hospitality and other support roles. Fuel is often donated by FBOs and other benefactors. Among the most involved are teams of volunteer air traffic controllers who travel to the destination cities to help local staff handle the avalanche of incoming traffic. In addition, controllers across the nation are on the alert for the special “Dove flight” call sign, indicating an SOA flight.

The airlift is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most of the athlete heroes to experience general aviation flying. It shows in their faces as they step off the aircraft for the walk of pride across the ramp to the cheering crowd of family and volunteers. Tony Wyllie, Regional President of Special Olympics North America said, “Traveling to Orlando for the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games may be the first time some of our athletes ever leave their hometown, let alone fly on an airplane. The travel experience provided by Textron Aviation and its customers will be the ultimate bookends for one unforgettable week.”