Disability is something pilots always have in mind, as becoming disabled could mean losing their third class medical certificate. It’s a frequent topic of discussion each month in my chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association.
I told another pilot about it at this year’s EAA AirVenture. Rather than thinking about how to appeal a medical denial, he simply said, “If you ever have a problem getting your third-class medical, you can always fly gliders.” You don’t need a doctor for that.
I know it was trying to be helpful, but it wouldn’t work for me because I love powered flight – I love my Ercoupe and can’t wait to fly The Impossible Airplane!
The uncertainty of how their disability will affect their freedom of flight is a daily reality for pilots with disabilities. That’s why I’m so grateful to Able Flight and their work.
As stated on the Able Flight website:
“Able Flight’s mission is to provide people with disabilities a unique way to challenge themselves through flight and aviation training, and in doing so, they gain greater self-confidence and independence. Able Flight was created by pilots who believe the life-changing experience of learning to fly is best shared; and so they designed the Able Flight Scholarships to enable people with disabilities to pursue this experience.
Every year at AirVenture, I make an effort to attend the Able Flight Wing Pinning Ceremony. It’s not just because I’m an Able Flight graduate, but also because I have tremendous respect for those who graduate from the program each summer.
Wheelchair rugby player earns his wings
I had the privilege of interviewing someone in 2019 who, at the time, was an aspiring future pilot. I could see it flapping its wings last summer.
Nathaniel Miller from Arizona graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in architecture and is working towards becoming a licensed architect. He developed quadriplegia following a diving accident. More recently, Nathaniel has competed in wheelchair rugby competitions at the national level. What an accomplished and inspiring person he is!
I want to share a few things he told me, and you’ll get a glimpse of his amazing mind. Here are two questions I asked him, followed by his answers:
What challenges have you encountered on your journey to earning your wings?
“The first and most crippling difficulty in learning to fly is the cost, while having a disability and Social Security disability as your only income.
As far as flying is concerned, all operations that require fine motor skills of the hands are the most difficult for me. Especially when it came time to calculate ground speed – you have one hand on the yoke and the other on the steering lever, that doesn’t leave much to fumble with paper, pen, calculator, flight log, etc.
The parking brake on two of the planes was literally impossible for me to operate with one hand, like a cylindrical knob that had to be pulled and turned simultaneously. Weakened hands made it a problem. I could only use it unattached and with completely dry (not sweaty) hands. Other adaptations are certainly possible that would make such things a non-issue.
What does it mean to you to be a captain?
“Being PIC is a kind of freedom for someone with a significant physical disability. It is difficult to explain. When one needs a wheelchair to get around, one finds the world filled with countless barriers. Impassable barriers that could literally prevent you from going somewhere, say, to meet friends, for example.
Having the ability to fly an airplane is a release from the hundreds of thousands of obstacles found on the ground that are encountered all day, every day. There is also a release from social stigma. No other pilot in the air, no air traffic controller has any idea that you use a wheelchair or have any other disability. And you are ultimately treated like everyone else.
But more than all that, achieving that lifelong goal (for some) is a reaffirmation of your willpower and determination, in the face of a whole new set of obstacles.
Thank you, Nathaniel, for your example of perseverance and excellence. Keep flying high!
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