Women with physical disabilities are being encouraged to apply for the full-ride flight training scholarships available through Able Flight, according to Charles Stites, executive director of the aviation nonprofit. Seven of the 35 people awarded Able Flight scholarships have been women, and although that’s better than the national average of approximately 6 percent of pilots who are women, the organization wants to increase that number, he added.
"One of the goals I had when I founded Able Flight was to create opportunities for anyone with a physical disability to challenge themselves through flight training, and that meant we would also work to welcome women with disabilities,” said Stites. “Though the percentage of our pilots who are women is well beyond the percentage of all pilots who are women, it is still below what we would like to see."
Deirdre Dacey, who received a scholarship in 2013, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when she was 16. After earning a degree from the University of Massachusetts and a graduate degree from Emmanuel College, she inquired at a local flight school on how to learn to fly a helicopter.
Asked if she could use her legs, Dacey said she could only use one. “He then told me I would never be able to fly. That comment sparked a fire in my belly and I could not sleep that night, so after being restless for four hours I got out of bed at 3 a.m. and Googled learning how to fly for people with disabilities,” she said.“That’s when I happened upon the Able Flight website. I was intrigued, and within a week, I had my letters of referral and my application completed and mailed.”
Dacey said she was inspired by the movie Top Gun. “I got the bug at an early age. Then I was diagnosed with MS and everything changed,” she said.
Stephany Glassing has been paralyzed for two decades, after a car accident as a teen. She earned her education, became a world-class sit skier, and has served as a peer counselor at the Shepherd Center, which specializes in spinal cord injury and traumatic brain injury rehabilitation and research. Her greatest achievement “has been to raise a bright and hard-working daughter who is now a college student.”
Glassing heard about Able Flight through Matt Eden at the Shepherd Center.“I was skiing on their water ski team at the time and he knew I had reached out to another CFI about getting my license so thought this would be a great match for me,” she recalled in an email. “I grew up around NASA down in Cape Canaveral FL so I was surrounded by the mission to get men and woman in space. I grew up meeting many astronauts and thinking how cool that would be to go into space.”
But Glassing originally thought being a flight attendant would be in her future. “After being injured at the age of 19, I realized that dream wouldn't be happening, but still had the urge to fly,” she said.“When I found out about Able Flight, my first thought was `Dang, let's be the pilot instead of the flight attendant. That works for me!’”
Jessica Scharle was born with a condition that fused nearly every joint in her body into almost total immobility. In 2008, she became the first female Able Flight Scholarship winner to complete training and earn a sport pilot certificate.
“Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated with flight. I would bird watch for hours on end and pester my dad to tell me stories about his days in the Air Force,” said Scharle. “Finally when I was in my early teens, my family took a trip to San Francisco and I got to experience flight for the first time! Everything from the sound of the engines, smell of jet fuel, the view, the feeling: I was in love with it all.”
Unfortunately Scharle’s parents were not comfortable with the idea of her learning to fly. “So while in college in 2005, I secretly started taking lessons. I accrued about 10 hours before I had to quit due to financial troubles,” she said. “Three years later, my instructor sent me an email about Able Flight and suggested I apply. Within a couple months, I was in Atlanta embarking on my journey.”
Scharle admitted that there were moments on her journey where she thought, "I can't do this. I just can't trust myself, my abilities, and my judgment to be up there and handle this kind of responsibility, much less an emergency."
This mentality started to paralyze Scharle and make it difficult to progress.“But with the help of my amazing, and very patient Able Flight instructors, I was able to overcome that fear and complete my training,” she said.
All three women emphatically encouraged others to apply for the scholarship. Scharle said that anyone with a passion for aviation should go for it and apply for the scholarship. It's a lot of work, but so incredibly worth it. The instructors are very knowledgeable and will ensure you are able to handle almost any situation that can be thrown at you,” she said. “Furthermore, how many people can say they have piloted a plane? By taking this challenge on, you are not only building your own confidence and accomplishing a dream, you are becoming part of something much bigger. You are helping to change stereotypes regarding women, especially women with disabilities, in aviation.”
Glassing said that learning to fly is a way to live your dreams, mark off a bucket list and not leave any regrets. “Getting my pilot’s license was one of the hardest things I've ever done, on different levels. But with that said, it's been one of the greatest accomplishments I have under my belt and I'm very proud of myself when I'm introduced as a pilot,” she said.“It's a commitment that has to be taken seriously, because there is a team behind you getting you to the check ride.”
Able Flight has empowered Dacey to challenge herself and do things she normally would not have done. “I have even recently taken up rowing and hope to row on the Charles River [in Boston] this spring or summer,” she said.“To fly a plane is amazing. It allows you to be free from the stereotypical disabled person persona. When I tell people I am a pilot, I feel such pride and accomplishment. There is such a great feeling to accomplish something in an environment where you are not the only person with limitations and you are not treated differently.”
Training for the next class begins in May; applications are due by March 15.