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I can fly - so what if I'm paralyzed.

More than any other people, Americans have had fascinations with commanding the sky above them. The United States has always been a world leader in innovative aviation technology and production of both civilian and military aircraft, as well as a haven for those from oil over the world seeking to learn to fly.

While flying for recreational or light commercial aviation is available in most western nations, aircraft, fuel, and maintenance are two to three times as expensive as in the United States, and cumbersome landing fees and regulations make aviation almost unaffordable. It is not surprising that with free use of almost 20,000 airports in the United States and low rental rates for aircraft, many people come from all over the world to be trained to fly here. In Napa, CA, for example, Japan Airlines has an extensive training facility for all of its pilots, rather than much more expensive training in Japan where additional restrictions on use of airports would make training slow and tedious. People from all over Europe also journey to the United States for pilot training.

Flying in some states is a means of mass transportation. In Alaska, for example, where 50% of the population holds pilot licenses, aviation is a way of transportation, not just recreation, and demands equal access for persons who are disabled. In the lower 48 states, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has modified certification procedures for pilots with disabilities, allowing them to join the ranks of Amelia Erhardt and Charles Lindbergh.

Pilot Certification

People with disabilities can fly. With the exception of a medical waiver and use of hand controls which are specially adapted to operate an aircraft, the procedure for becoming a pilot (pilot certification) is largely the same for people with disabilities as the general population. For most people, the first step is a ride in a small aircraft and the first opportunity to hold the controls and fly. Most flight schools offer 30-minute introductory flight lessons costing between $25.00 and $50.00.

This is the potential student's chance to see what it is like sitting in and flying a small aircraft. The cockpit is small, the instruments look threatening, and the engine is the size of that found in a compact car. However, when the engine speeds up on the runway and you feel your body pushed back into the seat, no words can describe the feeling as the ground gives way below and the plane takes to the air. Flight suddenly becomes a reality, not just a dream.

The Aircraft

General aviation aircraft range from small aircraft holding only two people to large jet airplanes. Larger aircraft and most jets require special certification. Because of physical requirements in case of an emergency, the Federal Aviation Administration has, thus far, rarely allowed pilots with disabilities to fly the large complex aircraft. Unlike many other sports in which people with disabilities engage, mistakes by aircraft pilots can injure not only themselves, but innocent people who are either passengers or those living under the flight path of an aircraft. Individuals who are in accidents in a wheelchair marathon usually only hurt themselves. In aviation, the government must protect people who can be hurt or killed due to negligent acts of a pilot.

Single-engine aircraft are the most common. These aircraft are fairly expensive to buy, ranging from $20,000 to $200,000; but, unlike the family car, they actually have been increasing in value as they get older and can last for 50 years or more. A two-passenger aircraft uses only a few gallons of gas per hour of flight, but really can carry only two small adults. A four-passenger aircraft consumes 6 or 7 gallons of gasoline per hour, but really holds only two adults and two small children.

One reason these aircraft last so long is that the FAA requires yearly inspections by a licensed mechanic. Additionally, while the pilot can do some repairs, an FAA licensed mechanic must do most repairs. This assures safety for pilot, passengers, and those over which the pilot flies.

Aircraft parts must all be FAA approved to be used; no discount store parts are allowed! Hand controls used for aircraft, like all aircraft parts, must go through an FAA certification process before they can be used. Fortunately, hand controls have been approved for most small aircraft and can be purchased for less than $500. One word of caution--unlike hand controls for cars, aircraft hand controls need adjustments when they are first installed, since even the same model aircraft can have small differences between years in which the model was produced. Several screws need to be adjusted which can be done in a few minutes by any competent flight instructor who has adjusted such controls in the past.

A final consideration concerning the aircraft a pilot with a disability might select is to determine if an aircraft with the wing above or below the cockpit is desired. Most two- and four-passenger aircraft are high wing; that is, the wing is on top of the plane. For a pilot who is ambulatory with braces due to some loss of muscle function because of spinal cord injury, stroke, or mild cerebral palsy, this type of aircraft is convenient to use, but the pilot must step up approximately 2 feet into the cockpit. For a pilot in a wheelchair, seat height is about 3.5 feet above the ground, and the landing gear blocks easy access to the door for convenient transfer. An exception to the latter is the Cessna Cardinal where the door is very wide. For most people in wheelchairs, high wing aircraft are difficult to use.

The second type of aircraft has the wing under the fuselage. Planes like the Piper Warrior have had excellent safety records in general aviation for both recreational and training uses. While the wing blocks entrance into the cockpit, the end of the wing is almost exactly wheelchair height so an easy transfer can be accomplished onto the wing. The pilot then can lift the wheelchair onto the wing and into the cockpit.

Flight Training

Flight training is not very different for pilots who are disabled or non-disabled. Phases of training can be characterized as familiarity, solo, flight planning, and the final exam. The first phase is to let the student become familiar with the aircraft and understand the basics of how it works. The next phase is learning enough basic flight maneuvers to allow the student to solo. After solo, probably the highlight of student training, it is time to get down to work and learn more maneuvers, night flying, weather, and flight planning. The final phase is preparing for the private pilot written and flight tests.


That first look at flight instruments and the airplane can be threatening to anyone. The first thing an instructor needs to do is make the student familiar with the new surroundings. This often starts with a walk or wheel around the aircraft to show the wings, flaps, rudder, ailerons, and even how to check the oil.

For an aircraft, each time it is flown, oil must be checked and fuel visually inspected by opening the fuel cap and looking in to assure that fuel gauges are correct. Drains under the wings allow fuel to be tested visually by filling a cup and checking the color; for piston engines, most fuel is tinted blue. If fuel is clear, it means it has been contaminated and the aircraft must not be flown. Water in the fuel settles in the bottom of the inspection glass indicating a fuel contamination problem making the aircraft unsafe to fly. This inspection is an FAA requirement before each flight. A pilot who is disabled may not be able to climb onto or under the wings to check the fuel or oil. But the FAA does not require the pilot to do the inspection, only to make sure it is done. Any airport personnel, or anyone accompanying the pilot, can make necessary checks.

Aircraft instruments are not as complicated as they seem. One set of instruments tells the status of the engine, such as oil pressure and oil temperature gauges. Another set of instruments, the radios, allows the pilot to talk to other planes and air traffic controllers. Yet a third set of instruments helps with navigation. These latter instruments receive different types of radio signals from navigation transmitters, both on and off airports, to help a pilot find the way. Finally, flight instruments, such as the compass and airspeed indicator, help the pilot fly the plane safely.

The aircraft is controlled by moving three parts of the outside of the plane, the control surfaces. Part or all of the tail is on hinges and can rotate when pedals are pushed up and down. This, the rudder, allows the aircraft to turn (yaw in aircraft jargon). Rudder controls may be able to be used by a person with partial paralysis, but they must be augmented by hand controls for the pilot who is paralyzed. Hand controls connect to the top of the rudder pedals; when moving the hand control from side-to-side, the rudder moves.

One complication on rudder pedals for someone with a disability is that most aircraft use pads at the top of the rudder pedals to operate left and right wheel brakes. Aircraft, like tractors, have one brake for each side. Thus, pushing the right brake causes the plane to steer to the right, while pushing the left brake causes the plane to turn to the left. Hand controls have a set of clamps attaching to the brake pads so moving the hand control up and down engages the brakes. By simultaneously moving the hand control to the right or left and up engages one brake or the other. The pilot with a disability must learn how to use the hand control to steer the rudder of the aircraft and use the brakes.

The other two control surfaces are elevators and ailerons. Elevators are located on the flat part of the tail (horizontal stabilizer) or may involve movement of the whole tail (stabilator). Pulling the control wheel back or pushing it forward moves the elevator up and down causing the aircraft to gain or lose altitude (climb or descend); this controls the pitch of the aircraft. The control wheel also turns from side to side moving control surfaces on the ends of the wings up or down. When one surface moves up on one wing, the other side moves down. These surfaces are the ailerons. By changing airflow across the wings, the ailerons cause the aircraft to bank to the right (right aileron up) or left (left aileron up); in aircraft jargon this is called the roll. The Wright brothers, who did not use ailerons on their first flights, found the aircraft skidded in turns. The ailerons and rudder, being controlled by the control wheel, are no more of a problem for pilots who are paraplegic than for non-disabled pilots. However, a pilot with quadriplegia must have sufficient ability to hold and turn the wheel and move it forward and back.

Pre-Solo Flight

During pre-solo flight training, a student pilot learns basic flight maneuvers, such as taking off, holding headings and altitudes, making turns, and learning to control ascent and descent of the aircraft in preparation for landing. For a pilot who is disabled, the workload is slightly different since the hands must be used to control the rudders and brakes of the aircraft.

The only other basic difference in training between pilots who are disabled and non-disabled prior to solo flight is the medical examination. The Federal Aviation Administration requires an approved medical doctor who has been trained as a flight examiner to conduct a basic physical examination on all pilots. This exam, including blood pressure, eye check, urinalysis to screen for diabetes (diabetic individuals are not allowed to fly), and checking for heart disease must be completed before a student can solo. For the pilot who is disabled, a medical waiver is needed. Because of paralysis, persons so situated must demonstrate to a designated FAA examiner that they can get into and out of the airplane on their own, load their wheelchairs, and manipulate the controls. Once a waiver is given, it is good for life. The medical certificate serves as the student's solo pilot certificate, and, with a sign-off from an instructor, allows the individual to solo.

Flight Planning and Exam

Post-solo training includes learning navigation, weather, more advanced flight maneuvers, different types of landings, night flight, basic flight by instruments, and many other skills needed before taking the private pilot's written and oral check ride. More than anything, it involves getting comfortable with the aircraft. Total time required in flight before the exam in 35 hours of flight time, including 25 hours of solo if the student has graduated from an approved flight school, or 40 hours of total flight time and 25 hours of solo from a non-FAA approved flight school. However, most students require between 50 to 60 hours of flight time before they can adequately do the maneuvers and are comfortable with the aircraft.

Advanced Flight Training

After the initial private pilots license is obtained, additional flight training is needed for a pilot to obtain an instruments rating, commercial pilot's license, or an airline transport pilot's license. The instrument rating is needed to fly legally in clouds and conditions where visibility is low. Instrument training in the private pilot license is meant for emergency use only, if the pilot accidentally gets into a cloud, and is not to be used to penetrate clouds intentionally. The instrument training requires 40 hours of additional training in flight in instrument conditions. It requires passing both a written exam and a flight check ride with a designated FAA examiner.

The commercial pilot license allows an individual to fly an airplane for hire, either transporting cargo or passengers. It requires demonstration of higher levels of skill in basic flight and emergency maneuvers from the private pilot license and another written exam and flight test.

The airline transport rating is considered the PhD of aviation for a pilot. It requires written and flight tests and a minimum of 1,500 hours of flight time. Skill level must show the pilot can precisely fly the plane and safely handle a variety of emergency conditions. The written exam requires advanced knowledge of navigation, weather, aircraft operation, and theory of flight for both jets and propeller-driven aircraft. Only 1% of all pilots ever achieve the level of airline transport pilots.

Multi-Engine Rating

To fly aircraft with more than one engine, the FAA requires a multi-engine rating. This rating requires only a flight test with a designated FAA examiner. But control of an aircraft with two engines can, in a emergency, require great physical strength in the legs to control the rudders or in the arms for hand controls. Thus far, the FAA has been hesitant to give multi-engine flight privileges to pilots with full paralysis in their legs, except for multi-engine aircraft with both engines in the fuselage. These are called push-pull aircraft since one engine is in front and pulls while the second engine is behind the cockpit and pushes. In an emergency, these aircraft can be flown much more easily if one engine is out and are used by pilots who are disabled even for commercial aviation.

RELATED ARTICLE: Flying Out My Wheelchair

We are more than 2,000 feet up in the air, floating silently over the green and sunlit world that stretches out below us. The only sound is the rushing wind outside the glider, but by now I don't even hear that. Up and to our right, a small form twists to the side, indignant over our invasion of its airspace.

"There's another hawk," Ben Emgee, the pilot, points out from behind me. "Remember what I said last time. They're our thermal guides."

Emgee is a trustee for Freedom's Wings International, Inc., the non-profit organization based in Scotch Plains, NJ, that has liberated me from the ground. During our first flight, he had told me how soaring birds are a perfect sign of the rising air currents, called thermals, that hawks and glider pilots use to gain altitude. As we spiral after the bird in a sharp turn that has me holding on tightly, the variometer--which measures air pressure under the plane and indicates lift--suddenly gives a positive reading to show lift of a thermal. I see from reading the altimeter that we are climbing.

After almost eight years in a wheelchair, I am free!

It is a heady feeling. Thirteen years ago, rapidly progressing multiple sclerosis (MS) forced my life into a new direction. Within five years I went from ambulatory to being confined to a wheelchair. I know--confined is not a politically correct expression. Too bad. It happens to be the way I often feel. I am fortunate that my MS has been stable for the past six years and that I can live alone and take care of myself, but I am so tired of looking up at the world from my wheelchair.

Whenever I see horseback riders in the park near my apartment, I ache to be mounted again. And I often see hot air balloons floating leisurely overhead. They always seem to be taunting me because I am stuck down on the ground in a 180pound motorized wheelchair with all the race and free spirit of a Mack truck.

No more, thanks to Freedom's Wings International. I can now fly rings around those hot-air soarers. The converted glider, or sailplane, around me has two positions in the nose, one in front of the other, each with full instrumentation and hand controls to allow a pilot who is unable to use his or her legs to maneuver the plane unhindered. And I can come to Van Sant Airport in Bucks County, PA, from April to November, along with students from as far away as Alaska and Ireland, to receive free flights and lessons. I am just one among many who are enjoying this. The sailplane I am riding in made over 400 flights last year. Our role model is the organization's president, Raymond D. Temchus, Jr. In 1988, he qualified as the nation's first FAA-certified quadriplegic flight instructor of sailplanes and is one of the country's few commercially licensed sailplane pilots with disabilities.

My flight-mate, Ben, has been flying for almost fifty years, fifteen of them in sailplanes. I admire the practiced ease with which he swoops to catch rising air, adding to our altitude. We are at 3,500 feet, having gained 1,500 feet without an engine.

"Do you want to take the controls this time?" he asked unexpectedly. I swallow. This is only my second flight, and the prospect of trying to pilot the plane is daunting. I had no idea that there was so much to keep track of. But a pro--who has a strong sense of self-preservation and plenty of skill--is sitting behind me, so I relax.

"Sure. Why not?" I curl my right hand around the control stick and my left around the rudder lever. My eyes flash from the yaw-string that is taped to the canopy over me (it shows the wind flow) to the various instruments, and finally to the horizon. Ben has told me to keep a slice of the horizon in view between the canopy and the sky to let me know that I am level. Too much horizon and I am losing altitude; too little and I am climbing, at risk of stalling as my airspeed drops. I also have to watch my airspeed gauge. If we are flying at less than 35 to 40 knots, we will stall.

I feel a little overwhelmed this first time, especially when I try my hand at turning and feel the plane start to stall. Ben chuckles and puts us back on an even keel as I realize I definitely need more practice. Level flight comes pretty easily, but turning is another matter. Not at all as easy as driving my hand control-equipped van.

As Ben hands control back to me, I continue to gain respect for him--and for that vanished hawk who is probably soaring out of sight somewhere above us, trying not to laugh at my clumsy attempts to fly. After a few more fumbling tries at turning I relinquish control, because a friend on the ground is waiting for her turn to soar--as long as she sees me come down safely.

As we circle around and drop towards the field, I know that I will keep coming back. During these flights I leave more than my wheelchair on the ground below. I leave all sense of disability behind. For a while I can soar, more than physically, in a world few non-disabled people ever get a chance to explore.

For more information on how to become part of this unique program, write to: Freedom's Wings International, 1832 Lake Ave., Scotch Plains, NJ 07076.

F. Alexander Brejcha is a freelance writer with multiple sclerosis who works the night shift as a telephone operator, and spends his free (?) time writing science fiction and disability-related nonfiction for a variety of newspapers and magazines. In 1993 he experienced true freedom while riding the therms above the New Jersey countryside.


Ten-year-old Stormy Burn has no use of his legs and cannot speak. But, he sure loves to fly!

Stormy attended the Challenge Air (CA) event held at Orlando Executive Airport in Florida on May 16 and 17, 1998.

He flew with CA's pilot, Theron Wright, a chair user himself. Stormy has cerebral palsy and he drives a huge tank-like hybrid wheelchair/off-road vehicle, controlling it with his head. He speaks with the help of a laptop computer and his biggest idol is Steven Hawkins. lust one look in Stormy's eyes and you can see that he is extremely intelligent.

When Stormy, his mother Katie, and brother Franky arrived at the event, Katie requested that he fly with Theron Wright. "After Stormy saw that Theron was in a wheelchair, he communicated through his hand gestures that no, Theron can't fly," said Katie.

Little did he know, until Theron showed him how he flew the airplane, that people in wheelchairs could be pilots. "It was quite a shock to all of us when during the flight he started screaming and hollering (the joyous type of screaming and hollering) and continued to do so long after his flight," said Wright.

To express their appreciation, Stormy and his family came back to the event the next day and brought Theron roses and a card that Stormy had made.

"The flight meant so much to Stormy," said Katie. "We fully intend to take him flying at least three to four times a year. This is his special treat. Meeting Theron made him realize that everything isn't lost for him."

Stormy's only request was that he have a picture with Theron by the airplane to place in his album of different people who have overcome obstacles in spite of their disabilities.

Theron will be placed next to Steven Hawkins.

Challenge Air is a non-profit organization committed to the education and inspirational advancement of children who are disabled and seriously ill by providing MORE--Motivational, Occupational, Recreational, and Educational therapy through the experience of flight with a pilot who has a disability, free of charge. For more information: <>.

For more information, contact the Wheelchair Pilots Association, Big Bear City Airport, Attn: Mike Smith, PO Box 2799, Big Bear City, CA 92314.

Additionally, two books may be useful for questions on general aviation: Airmen's Information Manual and Federal Aviation Regulations. Both ore published for the FAA and con be purchased at any airport pilot shop.

Jerrold Petrofsky is a professor of physical thievery at Loma Linda University. He has published over 200 scholarly papers and holds 33 patents in the area of rehabilitation following spinal cord injury. He presently t operates the Petrofsky Center for Rehabilitation and Research in Tustin, CA. Dr. Petrofsky has over 20 years teaching experience in aviation. Aviation can be fun, as well as a good means of transportation.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Challenge Publications Limited
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Petrofsky, Jerrold S.; Brejcha, F. Alexander
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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Next Article:Ssireum (Korean wrestling) for persons with sensory and mental impairments.

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