I think everybody on this earth, whether they know it or not, is ultimately trying to achieve freedom from whatever is caging them in. —Stephany Glassing
Her name is Stephany Glassing. She has already had a life of achievement: champion waterskiier, talented graphic designer and artist with her own business, and a mother who raised a daughter to graduate from high school, then college. One more thing: She just earned her sport-pilot wings. And she did it all from a wheelchair.
I met Glassing at the Hansen Air Group booth at Sebring's Light Sport Expo in January 2013. Bright, energetic, full of charm and good cheer, she was beaming about her first long cross-country flight, into the busy Sebring air show no less, in a specially modified Sky Arrow S-LSA.
I've written about Able Flight before, but all good stories bear repeating, so here's the short tell: It's a donation-funded organization that offers full scholarships to disabled people who want to fly a light-sport aircraft.
The Hansen family has been a big part of Able Flight from the beginning. They're all career aviators, from twin brothers Jon and Ron Hansen (retired airline captains) to Jon's twin sons Mike and Mitch (current professional pilots).
In 1984, Stephany Glassing was living the active life of a popular teenager in Melbourne, Fla. One night, she left a bar with friends. Everybody was drunk. The driver wanted to "play chicken" by careening the car faster and faster through the streets. Glassing, though an admitted "adrenaline junkie," was scared. She pummeled the driver with her fists, begging him to slow down.
He ignored her, sped around a curve too fast, and the rear wheel hit the curb. The car flipped, ejecting Galssing, then landed on top of her.
Three days later, she awoke, looked up at the hospital room ceiling and cried, "Oh, God, where am I at, this isn't my bedroom!" She had just turned 19.
We humans are curious creatures. We can let something as trivial as letting a parking ticket ruin our whole day, then turn right around to laugh at fate itself when our backs are against the wall. Stephany Glassing didn't give up on life. She let loose her inner tiger to take on the world.
"I had had childhood dreams about flying, as a flight attendant, then an astronaut. My mom worked with NASA, so I was surrounded by astronauts at a young age," Glassing recalls.
After the accident, those sky-blue dreams took a back seat to more pressing challenges. Then, more than two decades later, a friend from her water ski team called to tell her about Able Flight.
You read right: water ski. After her injury, Glassing had decided she would never accept confinement to sedentary life in a wheelchair. She learned, bit by bit, the skills that would earn her a berth on the USA Disabled Water ski Team. She even broke her leg in a crash landing during competition, but added enough points to help her team become 1999 World Disabled Water Ski champions. In time, she became USA National Ladies Sit Ski Jump Champion.
Glassing has also served as a peer counselor at Atlanta's Shepherd Center, a not-for-profit hospital specializing in spinal cord and brain injury treatment and rehabilitation. Then came the call about Able Flight.
"The funny thing was," she recalls, "my friend had no idea I wanted to fly. He just thought as a water ski jumper that I might want to. I always liked the flying aspect of jumping. So I got online, read about the program, contacted Able Flight, and a few months later, got a scholarship!"
That was in 2006. Her training began with the Hansen Group's Italian-made tandem Sky Arrow, fitted with an all-hand-control disabled pilots kit.
"Now, I'm not a technical thinker—I'm an artist," she says of her training. "So I had to learn how to think like pilots think, and learn the language."
Her flight instructor would joke that his biggest challenge was thinking of creative ways to explain flight concepts in a visual way for her.
"It doesn't do me any good to read," she says. "Unless I could jump in the airplane right after reading something and go practice, I just did not understand any of it. I had to be hands on, totally visual all the time. Once I understood the concept and what was happening, though, I was fine."
The little model airplane we're all used to from our own ground school days got quite a workout in her training. Her instructor, Mitch Hansen, would grab the model, use it to explain what the real airplane was going to do, and how and why it was going to do it.
"We spent a lot of time with that model airplane, because if I can't fully comprehend something, I don't want to do it," Glassing recalls.
Glassing took to her flying well. Then more disaster struck: five long year's worth of frustrating, sometimes frightening, medical setbacks that interrupted her training for months at a time. When a life-threatening infection caused by an antibiotic began to dissolve two of her spinal vertebrae, she fought despair. How much more would be asked of her?
One day, her daughter Briana said, "Mom, please don't let go. You want to be a pilot."
"Yeah. I do," she answered. After each ordeal, she'd recover and go back to flight training.
"I'm glad I did it," she says. "But it was definitely a push. I had to find the drive to start up again, many times. I may not be the best at everything I do, but I like to think if I'm going to start something, I'm going to do it 100% until I get to the best of my abilities. I didn't want to start my training then not be able to complete it. I've never done that with anything in my life, and I really did not want this to be that one thing!"
And there were angels all along the winding path, including unwavering support and commitment from Able Flight's Charles Stites and staff, the Hansen family and her flight instructors, friends and family who kept saying, "You can do this!"
"There sure were those days where I thought, 'I don't know if I can.' But then you get that little extra fire under your butt and keep going," Glassing says.
Then came that day every student both dreads—and longs for. After a landing, her flight instructor told her to stop the plane. He climbed out. "I thought it would freak me out. I knew the day was coming, but I was like, 'Yes! Now there's nobody to yell at me back there!'"
Her eyes light up. "It was just too cool. I got up, flew the pattern, made some landings, and I was...in awe of myself. I was like, 'Oh my God, you're flying this plane, you're in total control of this plane!' Then came my next thought: 'Do not crash this plane! It doesn't belong to you!'"
She laughs, then goes on to describe how, on her very first long cross-country flight after passing her sport-pilot check ride, she landed at the 2013 Sebring Expo...and was ramp checked!
"All of a sudden they were just there. At first I thought they were joking!" Glassing remembers.
She produced the requested paperwork and the ever-vigilant feds walked away satisfied. After what this new sport pilot had had thrown at her, what was a little ramp check?
Now, with 90 hours in her logbook, Glassing looks forward to more flying...once she figures out how to afford it. "If I win the lottery, I'll buy a plane," she says. She also hopes to assist other disabled flight students through the Able Flight program.
"I believe if you really want something, it's there for you. People today allow fear to control their lives. I don't know if it's me or the chair, but the combo of the two has allowed me to keep that fear under control. It's at a healthy level...but it's not worth letting it control my life," Glassing concludes.
On a mid-morning Tuesday this coming summer, Stephany Glassing will have her flight wings pinned on during an Able Flight ceremony held in Aeroshell Square at Oshkosh AirVenture.
I plan to be there, if for no other reason than to be in the company of a champion who never quits anything.
For more information, contact: Able Flight, www.ableflight.org or Stephany Glassing, www.22flamingos.com.