Tales are legion of aviators who rose to a mighty challenge. But those annals are incomplete unless you include the inspirational stories of a courageous cadre of contemporary fliers known as the Able Flight pilots.
Able Flight, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a charitable organization founded in 2006 by nonprofit executive and aviation media figure Charles Stites “to offer people with disabilities a unique way to challenge themselves through flight and aviation career training, and by doing so, to gain greater self-confidence and self-reliance.”
The Able Flight class of 2020 consisted of 10 individuals from around the United States—some of whose long-awaited opportunities to fly have been further complicated by an unforeseen adversary: the coronavirus pandemic.
As the nation celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July, we checked in with past graduates of Able Flight’s scholarship program in hopes of hearing a shot of news from aviation’s front lines and some words of inspiration to share with others who may be trying to map out life’s plan in light of a life-changing event.
We were not disappointed. Sean ODonnell of Pennsylvania and Justin Falls of North Carolina are Able Flight alumni who earned their pilot certificates and are forging into the future—two adaptive-aviation pioneers whose efforts to fulfill their dreams have blazed a trail for others to follow.
Any FBO or flight instructor should pay attention and probably take notes when ODonnell, who took his Able Flight training in 2007, talks about giving a passenger a ride in his two-place tandem light-sport pusher-prop-driven Sky Arrow with adaptive hand controls—because what he is describing is the perfect introductory flight. Not just the route, the length of the flight, and the sightseeing selections he uses—the intro starts on the ground and covers all the bases in an easy-to-process presentation to make the passenger feel involved and at ease. ODonnell gauges how much interest the passenger has in the nitty-gritty, and if it seems appropriate, he will demonstrate some mild maneuvers and perhaps cap the flight with a power-off landing. He’s always on the lookout for negative small-airplane myths to dispel—and when he spots one, he is “more than happy to engage that person,” he said, adding, “All fear stems from lack of knowledge.”
ODonnell was the second Able Flight scholarship award recipient and the second recipient to earn a pilot certificate. For many years he worked as the director of distance learning education at his alma mater, Villanova University, where he also created an award-winning distance learning program (making him an expert in a field many individuals and institutions are discovering on the fly these days because of the pandemic).
ODonnell, who as a high school senior had suffered a paralyzing injury when a car pulled out in front of his motorcycle, also founded Philly Sport Pilot, a training facility for sport pilots that included serving people with disabilities.
“Before COVID, [distance learning] was a debate,” he said, noting that much of the know-how now urgently being sought by institutions large and small was known in the 1990s, long before distance learning had overcome the considerable resistance that has still not entirely disappeared.
“Now everyone is making the shift,” added ODonnell, who now works in the software industry as a product manager, having “dabbled” in the field for years. He continues to consult with numerous universities on distance learning concepts.
“It’s not flying but it’s great,” he said, confiding that he harbors hope of one day having the opportunity to “travel and promote aviation in any way I can.”
It will be aviation’s gain when he does.
Falls says it was worth the time it took to tweak the hand-control modifications of his Zenith 750 light sport airplane now that he can make slick landings like this one in Jefferson City, Missouri, on a cross-country flight.
But there’s something Falls likes even more about the modified factory-built LSA he bought from Zenith owner Sebastien Heintz in 2018: Now other people with disabilities will be able to train to become pilots in his airplane.
The Able Flight Class of 2016 pilot became quadriplegic as a result of a neck injury when he was in college. As a pilot he appreciates that he never has to take his hands off the controls during flight thanks to a working collaboration he forged with Zenith to design and refine the control system. He also likes the easy access the aircraft provides him, and he values its capacity to transport his wheelchair to his destinations when he launches from his home base in at Lincolnton-Lincoln County Regional Airport.
Inspired by the access to aviation that the Able Flight program provides, it is especially meaningful to him that other student pilots will be able to receive dual instruction in the airplane, following two participants who have done so to become sport pilots.
“I wanted to continue that,” he said.
Flying was “nowhere on my radar” when Falls was recovering from his injury. But as he began to look into how to get involved in adaptive sports—now he is a competitor in wheelchair rugby and tennis—“I realized that there are a lot more things that you can do in an adaptive capacity,” he said.
Having grown up near a general aviation airport and attending many airshows there, the idea of flying came to mind. He found videos online of “guys flying with hand controls,” and his web searches brought him into contact with Able Flight.
The big moment came in 2016 when he became an Able Flight scholarship recipient about the same time he began to put his academic endeavors to work as a pharmacist at the Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory, North Carolina. The medical center encouraged him to fly and gave him time off to get his pilot certificate.
“That year alone, the job, flying—I was on cloud nine, just like another level,” he said. “I felt like I could do anything.”
Flying for fun continues as time permits for the busy pharmacist, who as a health-services professional sometimes endures hardships imposed on the health care sector by the coronavirus pandemic, including coping with shortages of medications for patients.
Falls recently took a passenger on a flight to Gilliam-McConnell Airfield in Carthage to enjoy open-air barbecue at an airport restaurant.
He is discovering, as all pilots do, that each flight delivers a unique lesson. On the Carthage run it was experiencing unusual in-flight visibility conditions caused by a Saharan dust plume that had been blown across the Atlantic Ocean to envelop parts of the east coast in late June.
Falls encourages any person with disabilities who longs to fly to check out the success stories of pilots with a wide range of disabilities on the Able Flight website, and he thinks most viewers will find the results promising—and perhaps even prompt a scholarship application.
Next, he said, a prospective pilot should make inquiry at the local airport and take action to go up with an instructor on an introductory flight.
Get a clear idea of what is involved in learning to fly, he said, because although it is fun, “this is hard work.”
It may take time to locate or develop an adaptive aircraft that suits an individual’s unique needs—in his own experience, getting the hand controls ironed out took two years—but patience and diligence can pay off.
Then, if after laying the groundwork everything looks right, “Go for it, absolutely, 100 percent,” he said.