Story and Photography By Carolyn Bowers

Oak Island’s annual Big Toy Day invites children to experience their future in the adult world of big jobs with “big toys.” For four hours on a Saturday afternoon, the kids become fire fighters, helicopter pilots, law enforcement officials, Civil Air Patrol cadets, crane operators and dirt bike racers. They not only learn about these jobs from the pros, but also get to try out the “toys” — and spark their imaginations.

At the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) plane was 12-year-old Kevin Willets, Jr. Kevin first learned about CAP two years ago, but he was too young to join. The minimum age to become a CAP cadet is 12, so he had to hold on to his dream for two years. Now he is enjoying every aspect of the program.

“I’d like to be a helicopter pilot,” Kevin said. “I’ve been interested in planes ever since I was a little kid.”

Several younger children waited in line to take the controls of the CAP plane, quite possibly looking forward to the day when they, too, will be old enough to become a CAP cadet.

According to their website, the mission of the CAP cadet program is “to provide the youth of our nation with a quality program that enhances their leadership skills through an interest in aviation and simultaneously provide services to the United States Air Force and to the local community.” The local unit meets on Tuesday evenings at the Cape Fear Regional Jetport. For more information, check out their website at .

John Kelso, former president of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI, manned the child identification booth. This program provides parents with free identification kits, which can be used to assist law enforcement officials in finding lost children. Kelso took fingerprints of all 10 fingers of each child and gave the parents a DNA swab kit to be used at home. This information is not entered into a nationwide database; it is simply kept by the parents to be turned over to the authorities to aid in a search and rescue effort if their child becomes lost or needs to be identified.

Children of all ages lined up to climb into “Air 1,” Brunswick County’s helicopter. The pilot is a full-time deputy sheriff with more than 20 years of military helicopter flying experience. Dick Hildebrandt, a volunteer with the program, explained that the helicopter is used mainly for search and rescue efforts, drug interventions and car chases. Hildebrandt accompanies the pilot and operates the onboard infrared system, which is used at night to detect marijuana fields and locate lost persons, etc. According to Hildebrandt, the chopper is sometimes used as often as 15 to 20 times a month. Its home base is the Ocean Isle Beach airport on Beach Drive.

When 10-year-old Manny Negron got behind the wheel of the Sunny Point fire truck, he decided he wanted to be a fireman. There was a brief glitch in his communication system, but he soon solved that problem and was once again able to communicate with his men. For those brief moments, Manny was not a 10-year-old boy, but rather the fire chief on the way to a raging fire and responsible for directing his brigade.

For the younger set, there were pony rides and camel rides. Dennis Brown and his wife made a five-hour trip to Jonesville, N.C., to pick up their four-year-old great grandson, Dylan Cook, so he could have another ride on a camel. According to Brown, last year it took Dylan several trips back and forth to the camel station before he summoned up the courage to get on the animal. After conquering his fear, they couldn’t get him off, and he talked about it all year long. This year a much older, braver Dylan jumped right up on the camel and waved and grinned as the trainer repeatedly circled the track.

Judging by the length of the line to register for a free plane ride, this was the number one attraction for kids between the ages of 8 and 17. The event was sponsored by the Young Eagles program of the Experimental Aviation Association (EAA). Five private pilots from the Cape Fear Regional Jetport donated their time and planes to fly 162 young pilot wannabes up N.C. Highway 211 to “Worms and Coffee,” along Middleton Road to the new bridge and back down the coast to the airport.

The kids had mixed emotions of anxiety and excitement as they put on their seatbelts and earphones and prepared for take-off. Each child was given the precautionary “barf bag” on takeoff and landing, and each was presented with a “Young Eagles Certificate,” signed by Chesley B. Sullenberger and Jeffrey Skiles, the two pilots on the Hudson River landing. The certificate proclaims that they are now a Young Eagle and their name would be permanently entered in the World’s Largest Logbook at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. In addition, each child was given a Pilot Log, which has an access code that gives them access to a free online flight ground school training. One can’t help wonder how many lives were irrevocably changed by those 10 minutes in the air.

Big Toy Day is one of the Communities in Schools’ (CIS) major fund-raisers. One hundred percent of the $5 per person entry fee goes toward supporting CIS activities. The Cape Fear Regional Jetport allowed the use of its property free of charge and discounted the fuel cost to the participating private pilots.

Sponsors for the event included the Brunswick County Airport Commission, Brunswick Electric Membership Cooperative, Murray Art & Frame, Gregory Poole Equipment Co., Kona Ice, Kidsville News, The State Port Pilot, The Brunswick Beacon, ATMC Wireless, WM Waste Management, United Way, and radio stations WAAV 950 AM, Coast 97.3, WWQQ 101.3, 94.5 HAWK, and 102.7 gni.