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Air Base Visit Fills One Item of Cancer Patient's Bucket List

SWANTON — The cockpit of an F-16 fighter jet, like the one Ashleigh Hunt peered into Thursday at Ohio's 180th Fighter Wing, is only big enough for one person.

But Miss Hunt — a 22-year-old Whitehouse native battling bone cancer — wasn't alone. Fifteen family members stood around her, all wearing identical white T-shirts that read, "Fight Like A Girl — Pray for Ashleigh."

Miss Hunt's visit to the Ohio Air National Guard base checked another item off her bucket list. She started working on the list after her disease spread to her lungs earlier this year, she said.

She was diagnosed with a rare cancer called osteosarcoma in August, 2013, and the malignant lung tumor was discovered in April.

While doctors focus on prolonging Miss Hunt's life, she and her family have been traveling around the country to complete her bucket list. Coming to the base marks the third item after visiting Harry Potter World in Orlando and going behind the scenes at the Columbus Zoo. The Facebook page dedicated to supporting Miss Hunt, which has more than 10,000 likes, has been charting her progress.

"Everyone has totally rallied around her," said her mother, Jodi Rupp. "We're focusing on spending all the time we can together."

Miss Hunt said she wanted to come to the 180th Fighter Wing because she has always been interested in fighter jets and often went to air shows with her family.

"It was kind of easy to create," Miss Hunt said of the list, especially when her friends helped her think of ideas.

While her condition didn't allow her to fly in an F-16, the base gave her what they called the "red carpet treatment." It marked the base's first experience with the Air Force Pilot for a Day program, which allows people with life-threatening illnesses to experience the life of a military pilot.

"The whole base pulled together and made magic happen," said Senior Master Sgt. Beth Holliker. With only one month's notice, the fighter wing organized a full afternoon for Miss Hunt, including personalized gear and multiple takeoffs.

Some employees even came in on their days off to help set up.

First, members of the base's staff commissioned Miss Hunt as an honorary second lieutenant in the Air Force. On a small stage in the briefing auditorium, Miss Hunt wore a full-body flight suit and a gray beanie that covered her head. She stood next to the 180th's commander, Col. Craig Baker.

"You'll be responsible not only to the governor but to the President of the United States," Colonel Baker said after she finished reciting an oath. "Is that cool?"

"Yeah!" Miss Hunt replied, giggling along with the rest of the audience including her mother, stepfather, two younger brothers, and extended family.

Pilot Lt. Col. Keith Kelly then briefed Miss Hunt on the day's mission, telling her he would fly the aircraft on her behalf and simulate an attack on ISIS targets in Syria. Wearing Miss Hunt's new identification tag, bearing her name and rank, Lt. Col. Kelly led the family to the base's expansive flightline. On the concrete, F-16s idled in the sun.

The bucket list travel will continue this summer with Miss Hunt and her family visiting New York City, Chicago, and a Selena Gomez concert.

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