‘I feel like the plane is talking to me’

Vianca Marez was born blind, but a lack of sight hasn’t stopped the 12-year-old from ziplining, skiing, horseback riding, swimming with dolphins, indoor parachuting, and participating in other activities limited only by her imagination or other resources.

Independence Aviation LLC owner and CFI Bob Stedman took the right seat as the then 11-year-old scooted into the left seat of a Cirrus SR20 at Centennial Airport near Denver in the summer. He coached her on the basics of aviation, how the flight controls worked, and prepped her for some of the forces she’d likely feel during takeoff, turns, and the landing rollout.

“Basically, she is a very precocious and bright young lady. I think being blind, she’s going to be very trusting and follow my instructions very carefully,” Stedman recalled by phone. “She wants to just explore and experience everything that she can, even though she has this limitation. It was a very special day for me as much as it was for her.”

He said that Marez had her left hand on the control stick and her right hand on the throttle from takeoff to landing so she could feel the forces of flight, the effect of increasing or decreasing power, and the sensation of maneuvering flight. He backed her up on the passenger side stick and helped adjust power settings while he verbally coached her into the sky over the Denver suburbs.

Stedman has been instructing since 1974 and had a good idea of how a typical student would react to certain inputs or sensations, so he knew “what to anticipate, but in this situation I’m confident she’s going to do everything I say and nothing I don’t. She also put a tremendous amount of faith in me, too.”

Vianca Marez, 12, who was born blind, controls a Cirrus SR20 with coaching and backup from Independence Aviation LLC owner and CFI Bob Stedman in Denver. Image courtesy of Angel Andres Rosado, Independence Aviation LLC.

He pointed out that the Cirrus was a good choice for the experience because it provides a stable platform with envelope protection and other safety features. Stedman’s Cirrus experience dates to 2001 when he became a Cirrus Standardized Instructor. “I’d tell her the airplane is going to do this, so you’ll do this.” Marez also controlled the flap lever and helped change the aircraft’s configurations on his cue. “Obviously, I was backing her up,” but she was “absolutely” a good stick.

Independence Aviation flight instructor and video television journalist Angel Andres Rosado captured the youth’s excitement after the flight in a video he shared with Marez’s family and others. “Imagine closing your eyes” and flying, he marveled. “The control inputs from her perspective were thrilling, and Bob said it was very natural for her to grab the stick. When he said, ‘Put a little pressure to the left,’ she maneuvered the aircraft smoothly and followed Bob’s instructions.”

“I feel like the plane was talking to me,” she said in the video. “It was a lot of fun. Keep in mind I got to fly the plane … I was not just the one riding [as a passenger]. I flew it,” she told Andres Rosado. “Sitting on this wing right now I’m just like, Wow! Just knowing that one of these took me somewhere,” was a revelation. She said a previous flight as a helicopter passenger just didn’t compare to handling the controls of the fixed-wing Cirrus.

The flight came to fruition after business owner Mark Cytrynbaum visited a coffee shop owned by Marez’s grandfather Stan Geels and prompted a discussion about aviation and a potential flight experience. Stedman credited Cytrynbaum with funding the cost of the flight and he complimented Marez’s family for seeing it through.

“Oh my gosh, she is amazing,” said the youth’s grandmother Bernice Geels, who, with husband Stan, raised Marez from early childhood. “You would fall in love with her. She sings like you wouldn’t believe, she performs in musicals, and she loves acting. She also loves swinging, and basically anything in the air,” Geels said by phone. “We had no idea she was going to be in the pilot’s seat, though. That gave her so much confidence, and she was so excited. I told Bob [before the flight], ‘You just tell her what to do. She has photographic hearing and once you tell her something, she just doesn’t forget.’”

A proud Geels said her granddaughter “did fabulous up there. We’ve always told her you could do anything you want to do. She is definitely one of a kind.”

Bernice Geels looks on as granddaughter Vianca Marez, 12, who was born blind, jumps from the wing of a Cirrus single-engine aircraft after handling the flight controls of a Cirrus SR20 with backup from Independence Aviation LLC owner and CFI Bob Stedman in Denver. Image courtesy of Angel Andres Rosado, Independence Aviation LLC.

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