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Flying Memorial to the Fallen

Red, white, and blue Baron has more than 7,700 names of lost servicemen on it.

By Randy Dufault

July 28, 2018 - As a career pilot for American Airlines, Rob Bowen, EAA 624218, spent his entire career looking at the United States from 35,000 feet.

“When I retired I thought I would like to fly around the country, stop at small places, see the people, and visit the places I [saw from up high],” Rob said.

Rob asked Jim Kaiser, a friend from American who is also retired, if he wanted to come along.

“He said, ‘Yeah, we could do that, but I’ve got an idea,’” Rob said. “[Jim] worked with a project called Snowball Express for, at that time, probably 10 years or more, and said what they do is serve the children of our fallen military heroes. I said that sounds like a great project. And I’d like to be involved.”

A plan was hatched to refinish the Baron Rob owns with two other American pilots in a patriotic paint scheme. It would also include the name of every active duty U.S. military member who had lost his or her life since September 11, 2001.

“When we got done we found we had over 7,700 names, which pretty much fills the fuselage of the Baron from front to back on both sides,” Rob said. “We were kind of shocked. We didn’t realize there were [so many].”

Rob and Jim brought the Baron to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2018. It is tied down just north of Boeing Plaza and east of Wittman Road.

Starting in 2006, Snowball Express seeks to provide hope and new happy memories to the children of military fallen heroes who have died while on active duty since 9/11. Events throughout the year bring the children of the names on the Baron together to, as Buck Kern, program director for Snowball Express put it, “To give the kids a chance to heal and be with other kids again.”

“One of the things that every single family wants is to know that the sacrifice that their dad or their mom, their husband or wife made is not forgotten,” Buck said. “So this project here, the act of putting all the names of the fallen on the plane, keeps their name alive and reminds the public of that sacrifice. The meaning that it holds for the families is pretty remarkable.”

Snowball Express is now a permanent program of the Gary Sinise Foundation.

Jim shared a particularly moving story from a recent stop the plane made.

“We had a Snowball Express event in the Dallas-Fort Worth area last year,” he said. “As part of it, we took the families out to Carswell Joint Reserve Base and the Lt. Dan Band played a concert for them. We brought the airplane out there. It was the first time the families had seen the airplane.

“One of the guests, a little girl, put [a] rock on the wingtip. We said that is kind of strange. She left it there and walked away, didn’t say anything to anybody,” Jim said.

“So we picked up the rock, and it’s one of these traveling rocks that said please post a picture of it on Facebook wherever it is. We kept it, and we’ve been taking it around to air shows and posting on Facebook,” he said.

Ultimately, the mother of the little girl discovered the rock on Facebook, wrote back to the pilots, and said that it came from her daughter. Her father died when she was just a little kid, and the travels of the rock now help her deal with the loss.

“That is part of what makes this all so special,” Jim said.

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