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'At ease' at the air base: 9-year-old girl is Airman for a Day in Niagara Falls

The personnel at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station greeted a new member Wednesday.

She's 9 years old, stands 3 1/2 feet tall, and prefers fist bumps to salutes.

Tianna Colarusso can get away with that.

The Delevan girl, a third-grade student at Pioneer Central School, was Airman for a Day through a program at Oishei Children's Hospital, where she has been a frequent patient.

Tianna weighed only 1 1/2 pounds at birth. She was born with a chromosomal abnormality that slowed her development and left her with an immune deficiency and chronically low blood sugar.

"She has very bad lungs and gets sick really easily," said her mother, Jessica Colarusso. "She's been through so much, but she's the happiest and most friendly kid ever.

"The whole way here she was saying, 'This is so exciting,' " her mother said of the visit to the air base.

Tianna sat in the cockpit of a KC-135 tanker plane, fired a water cannon from one of the air base's fire trucks and helped a base police officer "arrest" a major pretending to be a criminal.

As an honorary second lieutenant, she also received a salute from about 40 members of the 328th Air Refueling Squadron, lined up along the hallway at headquarters.

"You tell everyone, 'At ease,' and you give everyone a high five," Lt. Col. Ryan Smith instructed the girl.

"Fist bump," Tianna corrected him.

Tianna Colarusso, 9, greets the squadron at the Air Refueling building. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Her mother said Tianna has been instructed that fist bumps are safer for her because of her immune deficiency.

After Tianna greeted the personnel, Smith told her, "That was a lot of fist bumps."

"I'm tired," Tianna said, but she wasn't too tired to tell an air base photographer: "You should take a picture of yourself."

Then Tianna stepped into a police pickup truck, where Lt. Col. William Gourlay, the security force squadron commander, showed her the microphone and instructed her to repeat useful police phrases, such as "Put your hands up. You're under arrest."

Part of the tour was the living area of the base firefighters, including the TV room.

"I like to watch TV," Tianna said, grabbing a remote and pressing several buttons.

"This isn't working," she said.

"That's what she does to remotes," Jessica Colarusso said. "She pushes all kinds of buttons and gets me into screens I've never seen before."

Fire Inspector Joseph Honsberger asked Tianna if she wanted to take a ride in a small fire truck or a big one.

"The big one," Tianna predictably answered, and she fired six blasts of water from the water cannon onto the tarmac.

"It's amazing for her," Tianna's mother said.

It was fun for the military personnel, too.

"This is the best thing we do all year," said Maj. Chris Pike, a KC-135 pilot who showed Tianna his plane.

"It's usually the same people (assigned to the tour) because we love doing it," Pike said.

"This reminds us that life is not as bad as adults think it is," said Tech. Sgt. Elizabeth Canfield, who showed Tianna how she lies on her stomach in the back of a KC-135 to control the refueling of another plane in flight.

"Am I laying down in that?" the excited girl asked.

She did that, and she got to play to her heart's content in the cockpit, where she pushed buttons, twisted knobs, moved the throttle and turned the steering wheel back and forth.

Tianna Colarusso's highlight of the day is boarding a KC135 refuelling aircraft. She visits the boom with Tech. Sgt. Elizabeth Canfield, the boom operator. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

"What's this do?" she asked repeatedly as she encountered each switch.

Tianna also opened the emergency exit windows three times, which was unexpected.

"You're really strong," Pike told her.

Tianna was chosen for the visit by Stone's Buddies, an organization at Oishei Children's Hospital. Coordinator Alyssa Jerge said the program is "a support system for our kiddos who are coping with chronic illness."

The air base hosts an airman for the day about four times a year. A military support organization called Friends of Family Support Association picks up expenses, such as an olive-green kid-sized flight suit with official unit patches.

"It's an action-packed day, a full day," said Col. Mark S. Larson, commander of the 914th Air Refueling Wing. "They see a lot. Sometimes we take them out to the explosive ordnance disposal. They'll run the robots out there and detonate a charge. They like that."

Explosions, however, were not part of Tianna's tour.

Larson and Col. Gary R. Charlton II, commander of the 107th Attack Wing, swore Tianna in for the day.

"Today you're a part of our family," said Lt. Col. Michael McNulty of the 914th. That unit hosted the visit because much of the work at the 107th, whose main assignment is flying Reaper drones, is classified.

"How are you feeling right now?" a reporter asked Tianna.

"Happy," she answered.

And as Tianna was leaving the plane, she said, "I want to do it again!"

Tianna Colarusso, 9, of Delevan, walks through a plane with her mother during her trip to the base. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

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