When they arrive at Purdue University on May 19th, five new Able Flight scholarship recipients will immediately begin five weeks of intensive flight and ground training leading to a pilot certificate. This is the fourth year of the Able Flight/Purdue joint program to bring people with physical disabilities into aviation, and as with the first three years, the student pilots selected to train there share the common goal of changing their lives by becoming a pilot. Scholarship recipients this year pilots include a Marine who lost both legs to an IED, a woman with multiple sclerosis, a man who had polio as a child, a young man injured in a skydiving accident and a man paralyzed in a trampoline accident as a teenager. All five now use wheelchairs and will train in Sky Arrow LSAs adapted with hand controls.
Andrew Kinard chose the Marines when he graduated from the Naval Academy, and passed on a slot as a Marine aviator to choose the infantry instead. Only five weeks into his first deployment in Iraq an IED cost both of his legs and led to 17 months of rehabilitation at Walter Reed Medical Center. Soon Andrew will graduate from Harvard with both law and business degrees. And after five weeks at Purdue, Andrew will become an aviator. In his application he wrote, “Becoming a pilot will be the ultimate expression of my sense of adventure and my yearning for freedom. In the air, there are no limits! With an impressive list of educational and aeronautical accomplishments on the horizon, he says, “I have spent the last seven years trying to restore the man I used to be. I am now ready to become the man I ‘m meant to be.”
Deirdre Dacey of Massachusetts was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at 16. Over the next ten years her MS progressed to the point where she had to begin using a wheelchair. Refusing to be “held back”, Deirdre not only went on to complete college, but also earned a Master of Science Degree and graduated with honors. She is a Girl Scout Leader and works for a nonprofit that specializes in adoption, foster care and independent living. In her scholarship application Deirdre wrote of always wanting to learn to fly, and of her need to “make a difference in the world” and “to be known and remembered for something other than my disability”.
Young Choi of California had polio as a child in Korea; an experience that not only affected his ability to physically navigate through the country of his birth, but also shaped his view of himself. He recalls his early years in Korea as being very confining and “difficult because of the country’s severe lack of focus on disability”, an outlook that changed dramatically when he moved to the United States at age 22. Later he became a U.S. citizen and is now the father of three and a software engineer for a very well-known company. Young’s goal is to change the way people view disabilities not just in the Asian community in the United States, but in Korea. He wants to be an advocate “for those who have challenges and encourage them to achieve their own goals and push through their limitations”.
Warren Cleary has probably spent more hours in flight than many pilots. Those were hours quickly gaining altitude and more quickly returning to earth after jumping out of an airplane. The Georgia resident has been a professional skydiving videographer, an Accelerated Freefall Instructor and a FAA Senior Parachute Rigger. A member of the U.S. National Skydiving Team, Warren placed seventh in world competition in Dubai in 2011 and was training for the 2012 world meet when an accident caused his paralysis. All along he had planned to become a pilot, now he has that opportunity thanks to his Able Flight scholarship. In his application Warren wrote, “Being an active member in the spinal cord injury community as a Christopher Reeve Foundation Peer mentor, I could be a great example to others by showing them what can be accomplished in spite of a disability.”
Dennis Akins of Texas was only fourteen when he became paralyzed as the result of an accident on a trampoline. He has spent more than three decades in a wheelchair and during that time he earned a degree from Texas A&M, became a father, and has had a long career as an engineer, now with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That’s a long time to push back the dream of flying for the young boy who would “sit inside a cardboard box that was decorated with dials and switches, pretending I was a fighter pilot flying P-40s in China with the AVG”. His childhood aviation fantasy was fully revived in 2003 when a chance flight led him to becoming a member of the Civil Air Patrol where he now serves as Unit Commander and Aerospace Education Officer. At Purdue, the Sky Arrow will substitute for a P-40 when Dennis begins flight training.
The Able Flight student pilots will be trained by university graduate school instructors and will live in university housing located just minutes away from the school-owned towered airport (KLAF). Able Flight’s Charles Stites said, “When we look at applicants for training at Purdue we make sure they understand that this is not an easy program. In fact, it is just the opposite and that’s by design. Able Flight pilots who train at Purdue follow a strict syllabus developed by the university and they receive double the minimum training hours required by the FAA.”
While in training the students study together and are mentored by their instructors, and this year they will have the advantage of support and mentoring by two Able Flight pilots who previously trained at Purdue and are now enrolled in the university’s Department of Aviation Technology. Kevin Crombie earned his license in 2011 and is now an undergraduate at Purdue, and Wesley Major earned his license in 2012 and is a graduate student at the university. Major will also serve as a volunteer program coordinator for Able Flight during this year’s training, with responsibility for coordinating training and aircraft maintenance schedules.
The five to six week course will require five instructors and two aircraft. Able Flight rents the Sky Arrows from Hansen Air Group of Atlanta and Philly Sport Pilot of Philadelphia, and a week before training begins the planes will be moved to Purdue for the duration of the training. Able Flight’s Stites said,” Not only does this program provide a life-changing experience for our students, but we use funding from our donors and sponsors to support small aviation businesses each year. It’s a perfect combination.”