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American Airlines Transforms Wish Kid from Patient to Pilot

“ Granting a kid’s wish is a gift. ”

Thank You American Airlines

Captain Jim Palmersheim has flown some of the world's most-advanced commercial aircraft. He’s traveled the world to help military veterans as part of his work. He’s met celebrities and even Medal of Honor Recipients.

Today, though, he believes that giving Make-A-Wish® kid William a look into his life as a pilot is the highlight of his career. William, who was born with a heart defect, sees in Jim the person he wants to be more than anything else: an American Airlines captain.

Jim was one of more than 250 people who gave William a chance to live that wish. He rallied American Airlines employees, firefighters, air traffic controllers and many more people at Chicago and Dallas/Fort Worth Int'l airports, flight training, operations control and even the pilots’ union, APA, to step up for William. Together, they planned three jam-packed days that gave William a chance to experience everything involved in sitting in the left seat of an American Airlines aircraft.

As part of the Community Relations team, Jim, Sr. Manager, Veterans Initiatives, is also an MD-80 captain and still flies to keep his skills and certifications current. He says he was just in the right place at the right time to hear about William, who told Make-A-Wish that his one true wish is to be an American Airlines captain.

William's wish resonated immediately with Jim. He believes that every pilot is still connected to every 9-year-old who heard a jet engine, peered skyward and imagined being at the controls.

“I could identify with him immediately,” Jim says. “We truly do the stuff dreams are made of.”

William’s Life of Challenge

William was born without a right heart ventricle, in effect giving him half of a working heart. He’s had three surgeries, but none of them could truly fix his heart. They were all measures to improve William’s quality of life.

The truly unfair part of William’s condition is that he’s had some grown-up brushes with reality. He unfortunately knows that certain opportunities in life are beyond him because of his heart.

“He’s wise enough to know that there are certain things he’s not going to be able to do when he’s older,” says his mother, Kathy, “and this is one of them and it’s something he would’ve liked to do.”

Giving William His Chance to be a Pilot

The planning for William’s wish was the result of a two-day whirlwind of phone calls. One of the first tasks: William had to look the part of a pilot.

“We needed a uniform,” Jim says. “Not a costume – a uniform.”

That meant getting William’s measurements to the people in American Airlines uniform testing, getting the right hat, a pilot’s roll-aboard bag and – let’s not forget – an authentic pair of Ray-Ban Aviator sunglasses. By the time William arrived, they had everything ready for him. And not just his uniforms: Every person Jim contacted was ready to help.

“These folks took it and ran with it,” he says.

American sent Capt. Chip Long, Chief Pilot at Chicago O’Hare International Airport and Capt. Tim Raynor to visit William at his home to deliver the news that his wish would come true.

“This means the world to all of us,” Kathy says. “William has been through so much.”

High Energy and Inspiration

When William arrived at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Jim felt like he was looking into his own past. Jim believes you can’t just be a pilot. You need an inner voice urging you to seek adventure. You need a certain gleam in the eye. 

“William had it,” Jim says. “He’s an amazing inspiration, a bright light.”

Jim had planned a packed schedule, and he hoped that it wouldn’t be too much for a boy with an ailing heart. The excitement of the experience, though, had William swept up. His energy stayed high whenever Jim was by his side.

The Gift of Granting a Wish

Jim counts his three days with William as the “the coolest thing I've done in my 26 years at American Airlines.”

There were times when Jim wondered who was truly getting the most out of his wish – William or the American Airlines employees.

“I think about William every day,” Jim says. “When you have an opportunity to grant someone’s wish, you end up learning a lot about yourself. That was a great gift that I never expected.”

If you have American Airlines AAdvantage® miles, you can donate them to American’s
Kids In NeedSM program which supports children’s charities including Make-A-Wish®.  Go to and select "Miles for Kids In Need." 

A very special thanks to American Airlines Captain Terry Burke who arranged for the pilot uniform, glasses, hat and custom baggage for William.

  • William in his custom American Airlines pilot uniform and hat.
    PHOTO: Mary Melka Photography

  • William salutes the AA community as he enjoys the view from the airplane’s cockpit.
    PHOTO: Mary Melka Photography

  • Official pilot duties include inspecting a 787 on the aircraft hangar.
    PHOTO: Mary Melka Photography

  • An exciting ride to emergency training and putting out a fire.
    PHOTO: Mary Melka Photography

  • The newest chief pilot wears his AA pin.
    PHOTO: Mary Melka Photography

  • Now that he’s completed ground school, William prepares to operate the airplane.
    PHOTO: Mary Melka Photography

  • Not even 3 heart surgeries could stop William from being a pilot.
    PHOTO: Mary Melka Photography

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A Pilot's Log

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Day 1
A receiving line of pilots saluted William, and he continued with a visit to the corporate offices. He met the chief pilot, then upheld the tradition of ringing a bell to welcome a new pilot to the company. William was also promoted to chief pilot; American Airlines even gave the chief pilot’s office a personal flavor by having photos of William’s family on the walls.

Day 2
The second day included a visit to Human Resources, ground school, time in the flight simulator, a check ride and emergency training (including putting out a fire).

Day 3
The final day of William’s wish took him to Air Traffic Control, the controller tower (where he had a view from 300 feet above the ground), a visit to the hangar, an inspection of a 787, being named honorary fire chief and a pizza party with the firefighters. He also drove a tug to move a 787.

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June 25, 2012 - 11:25 AM

June 25, 2012 - 11:25 AM

June 25, 2012 - 11:25 AM

June 25, 2012 - 11:25 AM

June 25, 2012 - 11:25 AM

June 25, 2012 - 11:25 AM

June 25, 2012 - 11:25 AM

June 25, 2012 - 11:25 AM

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