Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wings To Fly

A paraplegic’s tenacious journey to the skies

We met at my aircraft. The stop-watches came out, and the air was tense. I duly offered to go first.

A fireman blew his whistle. I grabbed my crutches, slid the window open and threw them as far as I could. I hooked my elbow into the top window channel, flicked my legs onto the passenger seat with my spare arm, and arched myself backwards, rolling over the doorway.

I landed with a bump on the inner low wing, continuing to roll. I fell flat on my face on the tarmac with a thud. I ignored the pain and breathlessness, spun myself around into a sitting position and sailed away on my behind as fast as I could.

Eighteen seconds, start to finish.

The silence was deafening. The director cleared his throat and climbed into the aircraft. (The Ercoupe is a bit of a tight fit for them plus-sized pilots!) The fireman blew the whistle. The director wiggled for a second or two, lifted his knee and jerked. The little Ercoupe shook and rattled. The honorable director was completely stuck!

Well, I passed my medical and finally got my license. Something, however, kept niggling me. It was the need to show, in no uncertain terms, that I was as able as any able-bodied pilot. I wanted to fly a normal plane with rudder pedals. Two years later, I purchased my first rudder airplane—a Piper Tri-Pacer. To learn to fly it, I had to make a small bracket on the side of the seat that stopped my leg from swinging to the outside when I pushed my foot down onto the pedal, because if I pressed my foot hard onto the pedal, my entire leg would swing outward. I also had straps with clips at the back of my shoe to hook over the rudder pedals, so my feet wouldn't fall off them mid-flight. Since it clipped onto my foot, it wasn't a modification to the plane. Once again, I had to approach the DCA, and the director said, "You can only fly this if you can show you can use your legs." We agreed that he'd come with me for a test flight. So, on the appointed day, we taxied down the runway.

"Line up and take off," he said. He pressed hard on the rudder pedal to the left to see if I could keep it straight, and I corrected. He did the same on the other side. Then he yanked the throttle closed and said, "You're good to go."

That was the epitome of success. Finally, after five years, I was a pilot who could fly a normal plane. I had also wanted to champion disabled people to enjoy the same activities as those who are able-bodied. Two years later, I received an instructor's rating. Two years after that, in 1992, I became a CFI with my own flying school.

I was one of the first paraplegic flying instructors in the world. To date, I've trained over 400 pilots.

My personal message to you is that you should always know that you can achieve anything in life—if you're prepared to pay the price. Sometimes the price is an emotional one, sometimes it's financial, and sometimes it comes down to sheer determination. But, if you can buckle down and say, "Yep, I'm prepared to do what it takes," then you can absolutely do it.


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