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Helmut Schmidt, Published February 23 2012

West Fargo boy is ‘Pilot For A Day’ with 119th

FARGO - The bad guys had no chance Thursday, with Gen. Jack Gellner at the controls of the MQ-1B Predator drone simulator.

That’s because everyone who knows Gellner by his call sign – Lightning – knows he likes to strike again and again.

Once he set his targeting marker on a tank, building or car, and the countdown to missile strike got to four, that’s when 9-year-old General Jack’s grin would get a little wider and he’d wave “bye-bye.”

Gellner enjoyed a day of all things military as the “Pilot For A Day” with the 119th Wing of the North Dakota Air National Guard.

“He is having the time of his life,” Gellner’s mother, Kristi said. “He hasn’t stopped smiling since he got here.”

It was an extra-special time for the West Fargo boy, who has used a wheelchair since he was a toddler due to a motor neuron disease called Type 2 spinal muscular atrophy.

Sanford Health connected Jack and his family with the Happy Hooligans.

The “Pilot For A Day” program honors a child who is fighting or has overcome a life-threatening medical condition.

The day started with a military escort, complete with sirens and salutes at the base gate. He then had unit patches added to his flight suit and was promoted to honorary general.

Jack’s stars were pinned on by Col. Rick Gibney, the 119th’s commander, and 1st Lt. Andy Teigen, one of his guides.

“He was very proud when he got his patches and pins put on,” Kristi Gellner said.

Jack was joined by his father, Rod; younger sister, Rose, 6; and two friends, Mateja Pesek and Carter Aamodt. (His 2-year-old brother had to stay home.)

“We’re having a blast. This is so wonderful,” Rod Gellner said. “I can’t say enough about how cool it is.”

Beyond the simulator, Jack got to see and try on pilots’ survival gear, complete with helmet and night vision goggles.

He then sat in a C-21 Learjet and was greeted by a base pilot by headset; was treated to a C-21 flyby; and rode in a base fire engine, getting the chance to operate the water turret.

The family then had lunch at the Fargo Air Museum among the vintage aircraft, before returning to the base for a farewell ceremony.

“I hope he has a memory that he can take for the rest of his life. Something that he won’t forget,” said Teigen, who sat beside Jack in the C-21.

And it would be a good bet he did.

“It was pretty cool. I was the pilot,” Jack said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583