445th AW Reserve Airman connects with aircraft enthusiast over shared love of aviation

  • Published
  • By Amanda Dick
  • 445th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

The aircraft rattles as it zooms down the runway gaining speed, and passengers feel like they’re on a roller coaster as it takes off.

Once in the air, the engines whir as pilots fly the aircraft to its destination, sometimes flying through turbulence, sometimes through skies so clear one can see the ground or water below.

Imagine being deaf and blind in an environment of sight and sound, and you’ll understand the unique relationship Ryan Vlazny has with aircraft, specifically the McDonnell Douglas DC-9.

“I am a very rare breed of aviation enthusiasts because I am deaf and visually impaired,” Ryan said in a story he wrote that was provided by his father, David Vlazny.

Ryan’s introduction to DC-9s happened in 1992 on a flight to Cincinnati when he was 5. He wrote his “love affair” with the air frame started on a flight to Detroit in 1997. The difference, he received a cochlear implant a couple years before at 8-years-old that allowed him to be able to hear on his 1997 flight. He explained he was also diagnosed at 8 with Usher’s syndrome that causes deafness, gradual vision loss and vestibular dysfunction (issues with the body’s balance system), eventually losing his vision in 2018.

“Despite my disability, it allows me to have a unique perspective and experience of flying on planes and observing the flying characteristics of the aircraft in terms of sound, vibrations, and the way the aircraft flies,” Ryan wrote.

Part of the love for aviation includes pilots, and that is what led Ryan and David to Lt. Col. Michael Bennett, a Delta pilot and the 445th Mission Support Group deputy commander.

“Ryan reveres pilots,” David said. “He likes to meet pilots when we are at the gate to let them know that we are on their plane just for a fun ride. … They are always amazed that we are flying for fun.”

So, David introduced Bennett to Ryan, who is now in his 30s.

“I had an instant connection to Ryan’s dad because I know what it’s like to want what’s best for your child,” Bennett said. “It was encouraging to see a father work so hard to make his son happy, and it reminded me that we all have these connections to each other that unite us through experience. Parenting a child with disabilities is tough, no matter the circumstance.

“We as parents want what is best for them. When you meet Ryan, he doesn’t want to talk about the challenges he faces; he wants to talk about what he loves,” Bennett continued. “His father puts in a lot of effort to be there and experience those things with him.”

Bennett’s military service spans 27 years. He enlisted in the Army National Guard in 1996 and commissioned in 2000. He cross commissioned to the Air Force Reserve in 2002 where he was assigned to the 445th and flew C-141 Starlifter, C-5A Galaxy and C-17 Globemaster III aircraft. Bennett served in other units from 2012 until his return to the 445th in 2020, and he has been a Delta pilot since 2016.

After the first encounter with Ryan, Bennett started working with Delta to set up a simulator experience and tour of a DC-9 in Atlanta, Delta’s headquarters. The air frame had been retired around 2014 and almost exclusively flown by Delta.

“This ended up being a profoundly unique encounter,” Bennett explained. “Ryan was so passionate about flight and experiencing everything he could about the aircraft. It was a different way of understanding the process, and it really made me reflect on how hard it is to appreciate genuine experiences when they become routine. Everything we do as pilots we do on a regular basis, but Ryan has an appreciation for different things than we do because he experiences everything differently.”

David couldn’t have been more elated.

“I was thrilled,” he said. “When I told Ryan I received an email from Captain Bennett after our Chicago trip, he was amazed and happy. Our excitement started building over the weeks when the Atlanta trip was being organized. It was spectacular for me to see Ryan so happy. It was so well organized. Everyone was so sensitive and patient. I was witnessing a dream come true.”

Ryan wrote he tried to fly as many DC-9s as he could before they were retired. He now continues the tradition on the current evolution of the frame, the Boeing 717 aircraft.

One such trip to California yielded more than a 717 flight, but also an interaction with the Air Force in the form of an open house and air show at Travis Air Force Base. According to David, that particular trip allowed Ryan to fly in a 757, 767, 717 and 1940 Stearman aircraft, as well as see a C-5, KC-10 and more aircraft at Travis.

As for Bennett, meeting Ryan ignited a friendship. “It started with getting him into a simulator and has blown up to something where people have been able to feel his energy,” Bennett said. “He’s an incredible guy who wakes up and grinds it out. He’s living independently with these challenges and that’s what makes him special. On top of that, his love for aviation really made me his friend.

“There are so many takeaways from this experience,” he continued. “We interact with so many people and most of those interactions never pass the stranger barrier. If I hadn’t paused and acknowledged David and Ryan, I would have missed out on something incredible. There are so many barriers that we have to break through to really hear people, but it’s worth it. Sometimes, the things they have to tell us are genuinely profound.”

(Staff Sgt. Ethan Spickler contributed to this article.) This article does not constitute endorsement of any airline or organization mentioned.