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There’s a place for everyone, of all abilities, in aviation

Jessica Cox flies an Ercoupe with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in Frederick, Maryland, during activities to bring attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July 2020. October is recognized as National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Photo by David Tulis.

In 1962, Congress dropped the word “physically” from the observance to include all types of disabilities, such as autism and other psychiatric and learning disabilities. In 1988, Congress expanded the observance to the entire month of October and changed the name to “National Disability Employment Awareness Month.”

Many people only envision hotshot pilots like Chuck Yeager and Neil Armstrong whenever they think of aviation. However, there’s room for everyone in aviation, no matter their abilities. Numerous nonprofit organizations are working to introduce people with disabilities to the aviation industry with the goal of having them consider it, like accounting or medicine, as a profession anyone can pursue.

Challenge Air

One organization that introduces aviation to special needs children is Challenge Air. Among its goals is to “educate children/youth about the aviation industry and encourage them to consider occupational roles other than the customary ones to which they are generally directed.”

Challenge Air was founded in 1993 by Rick Amber, a disabled pilot himself, to build the confidence of children with disabilities through flight. Amber graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1967 and flew F–8 Crusaders from aircraft carriers during the Vietnam War. In 1971, his jet crashed during a carrier landing and he ejected. The accident caused a serious back injury that paralyzed his legs and confined him to a wheelchair.

Back in the civilian world, Amber earned multiple pilot certificates and taught aviation ground school. In 1993, he bought a Cessna 177 Cardinal and modified it with hand controls and oversized doors and handles to assist boarding people with disabilities. Then, he invited children from the Dallas Spina Bifida Association to Addison Airport for a flight in his airplane. Afterward, he realized he could inspire children who were disabled as he was and share his love of flying. Those children were just the first of 3,500 people Amber took aloft and Challenge Air was founded. Amber died of cancer in 1997, but the organization continues to fulfill his mission.

Amber believed that “The human spirit prevails over any physical or mental obstacle. After a day with Challenge Air, no height seems unreachable; all it takes is desire and truly the sky’s the limit.”

The human spirit prevails over any physical or mental obstacle. After a day with Challenge Air, no height seems unreachable; all it takes is desire and truly the sky’s the limit.” —Rick Amber

Each year, Challenge Air hosts multiple “Fly Days” across the country during which children ages 7 to 17 years old can participate in aviation activities and perhaps take an actual flight, weather permitting. The children attend a short ground school in which they learn about flight dynamics, flight training, and professions in the aviation industry. Educational displays offer hands-on learning such as building model airplanes, operating a flight simulator, and climbing aboard an airplane. Usually, 15 to 20 volunteer pilots donate their airplanes, fuel, and time to give each child a flight. Since 1993, more than 36,000 children in 35 states have attended a Challenge Air Fly Day. The next Fly Days are scheduled for October 9 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and October 30 in Mesquite, Texas. Visit the Challenge Air website to register to participate.

Need inspiration?

If you think you have a hard time making a smooth landing, try doing it without arms. Jessica Cox certainly can. In 2008, she became the world’s first armless certificated pilot. Born without arms in 1983, Cox used prosthetic arms until age 14, when she gave them up to do with her feet what most do with their hands. Additionally, she drives, scuba dives, and competes at Taekwondo using only her feet.

Cox earned a sport pilot certificate and flies a bright yellow-and-white 1946 Ercoupe, which qualifies as a light sport aircraft. The Ercoupe features a rudder interconnected to the ailerons. This allows Cox to maneuver the airplane with one foot on the yoke, the other controlling the throttle, and grease those landings. Cox announced in July that she plans to pursue a third class medical certificate and fly a Van’s Aircraft RV–10 that she plans to help build.

She received her flight training with a scholarship from Able Flight, an organization dedicated to the idea that people with disabilities can change their lives by learning to fly or by training for an aviation career. Able Flight offers three types of scholarships—a full flight training scholarship, a return-to-flight scholarship, and a career training scholarship.

Are you ready to become the pilot in command of you?” —Jessica Cox

Cox works as a motivational speaker and advocate for people with disabilities. In 2015, Cox published an autobiographical, self-help book, Disarm Your Limits, to inspire people to overcome their own challenges. As she asks in her book, “Are you ready to become the pilot in command of you?”

A documentary film, Right Footed, chronicles her life challenges and her efforts to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities through the U.S. Senate. The convention is a United Nations treaty that requires nations to protect the human rights of people with disabilities and ensure full equality under the law.

Numerous other organizations promote aviation to people with disabilities, such as the International Wheelchair Aviators, who can help people with disabilities navigate the FAA’s medical requirements and find flight schools that can work with students in wheelchairs. The Freedom’s Wings International organization introduces people with disabilities to the joy of soaring.

Orville Wright espoused the importance of encouraging young people to explore all possibilities. He recalled, “We were lucky enough to grow up in an environment where there was always much encouragement to children to pursue intellectual interests; to investigate whatever aroused curiosity. In a different kind of environment, our curiosity might have been nipped long before it could have borne fruit.”

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