Peter Pan famously said, “The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.” Yet pilots with disabilities have had to overcome more than doubt for many years. The high cost of training and the scarcity of adaptive equipment are but a few of the extra obstacles keeping would-be pilots grounded. Fortunately, many passionate aviators refuse to give up on change and are working to make the skies accessible to all who love to fly.
The Return of General Aviation Hand Controls (and Why That Matters)
Cruising through the sky at 120 mph, the Cessna flown by Quincey Carr is indistinguishable from any of the others flying over Northern California. And unless you are seated beside him in the cockpit — or pulling a highly unsafe Top Gun maneuver — there’s no way to tell that Carr, a paraplegic, is using hand controls.
While there are many options for small planes that fall under the light-sport and experimental classifications, there are only two FAA-certified hand controls for larger, faster commercial aircraft, and they are surprisingly hard to come by.
Manufacturers of the two models ceased production over a decade ago, citing high insurance costs and slow sales, among other reasons. The resulting shortage makes it difficult for pilots with spinal cord injuries or similar disabilities to get the training they need to obtain their commercial pilot’s license. According to Linwood Nooe, the founder of the nonprofit Operation PROP, Carr was lucky to find a used set. “I couldn’t even tell you where to find an old set of hand controls now,” he says. “There are people all over the country who are looking, and you just don’t find them.”
Nooe, whose wife is paraplegic, started Operation PROP in 2014 to improve access to hand controls. After four years of hard work, he is on the verge of doing just that.
A Short History of Hand Control
Piloting the friendly skies in a commercial aircraft without the use of your feet or legs was not an option for the first 60 years of aviation. With foot pedals needed to control the rudder, steering and braking, many aspiring pilots with disabilities were kept out of the cockpit.
Navy Lieutenant Commander William Blackwood is credited with changing that. Blackwood served in World War II and the Korean War before sustaining a spinal cord injury when he ejected from a fighter jet during a 1962 training mission. Unwilling to give up the skies, Blackwood developed the first hand controls to receive FAA approval for commercial flight. Blackwood’s hand controls fit many different types of Piper or Grumman aircraft and could easily be transferred between planes. Approved by the FAA in 1969, those controls allowed him to regain his commercial pilot rating and open his own flight school.
A group of friends with a small flight school in Kentucky invented the Blackwood controls’ only rival. Nooe says the group wanted to help a wheelchair-using friend get back in the pilot’s seat and they came up with the Union Aviation controls, patented in 1975. “They never really made any money selling them,” says Nooe. “They did it for all the right reasons.”
Neither model is currently in production, leaving many aspiring pilots on the tarmac. “I’ve got a list of about 30 people who are either pilots or want to become pilots,” says Nooe. “Many already have their light sport license and want to get into commercial, but they can’t do it.”
Opening Up the Skies
Without the support of his Northern California community, Carr might still be grounded. An aspiring pilot since childhood, Carr earned his private pilot’s license at 17 and had just passed a key test toward earning his commercial license when he was shot and paralyzed in 2006. The financial realities of SCI and the high cost of pursuing flying helped him make the decision to put his aviation career on hold.
In 2016, he was making a living spinning signs for a nearby business on a street corner less than a mile from the Oakland Airport when a group of local police and firefighters surprised him with a $10,000 award to send him to flight school so he could earn his certified flight instructor rating. His church raised money and bought a set of old hand controls, allowing Carr to pursue his dreams.
Today, Carr is a certified flight instructor at East Bay Aviators in Hayward, California, and has about 700 hours of flight time. He wants to give others in similar circumstances the opportunity to take to the skies. “Once new hand controls become available, I want to purchase a second set so that I can teach other people who need them to learn how to fly,” he says. But giving flying lessons is not his ultimate goal. “Beyond that, I want to purchase my own plane to use in giving those lessons and eventually establish my own flying service.”
Nooe’s goals are along the same lines, and he is closer than ever to achieving them. In early December, Operation PROP received long-awaited approval from the FAA to start manufacturing the Union model. “We should be ready to go by the end of the year, if not January, so hopefully by the end of January we’re going to have hand controls in production,” says Nooe.
Nooe hopes to sell them for around $4,000, and is looking to partner with other non-profits to find funding so that no one who wants to fly is left on the ground. “It’s not just about getting the hand controls back in production,” he says, “there should be at least one flight school in every state in the country that has a set. To me it’s a much bigger picture — it’s letting people know that they can do this, getting the word out and getting the resources together to make that happen. If there is somebody out there who wants a set but can’t afford it, I want to be able to help make that happen.”
Three Generations of Adaptive Pilots, One Plane
If there is such thing as an ideal plane for wheelchair-using pilots looking for more power and speed than gliders and smaller airplanes have to offer, it is probably the Cessna Cardinal 177 or 177RG. Chad Colley is a triple amputee and wheelchair user who has owned and flown a Cardinal for many years, and he can testify to its suitability. “It has the biggest door in general aviation at 4 feet wide,” he says. “In addition, the main landing gear is aft of the door, which allows a wheelchair to get within inches of the pilot’s seat with no interference by the landing gear.”
Add in the ability to cover 600 miles cruising at 140 mph and the lack of a wing strut to impede the pilot’s transfer into the cockpit, and you have a great plane for any level of flyer. Cessna introduced the 177 in 1968 and produced it until 1978. Forty years later, a surprising number of 177s are still in use.
For an example of that longevity, and the lasting impact that flying can have, you need look no further than a hangar in Fort Meyers, Florida, where Craig Peterson, 61, keeps one of his two Cardinals. This one is special because of its heritage. Peterson, a C7-8 quad, is the plane’s third owner, and all three have spinal cord injuries.
The Cardinal started out as Jim Maye’s ticket to return to the skies. Maye flew a Phantom jet for the Marines in Vietnam but was paralyzed by a gunshot while on the ground. The Cardinal was the first plane he owned after his injury and he designed and built his own hand controls so he could fly it.
Maye, a T4-5 para, worked on behalf of veterans, first as executive director of the Paralyzed Veterans of America and later in a top position at the Veterans Administration. During that time, he continued flying a Cardinal 177RG with retractable landing gear, before upgrading to a new plane that was faster. It didn’t take much advertising to sell his first Cardinal, as the buyer actually worked for him at PVA.
The second owner of the Cardinal was Larry Roffee, a para from Gaithersburg, Maryland, who was also wounded in Vietnam. Roffee was hired by Maye as legislative director at PVA and, inspired by his boss, decided that he wanted to learn to fly. He did so in an Ercoupe, a low-winged plane that can be flown without using your feet. He bought the Cessna Cardinal from Maye and flew it for 40 years. After retiring from his position as executive director of the United States Access Board, Roffee sold his Cardinal to Peterson three and a half years ago.
Peterson started flying in 1977 after he was paralyzed in a diving accident at the age of 16. When he received his private pilot rating from the FAA at age 19, the examiner thought he was likely the first quad to earn that status. During the 40 years since earning that license, he has owned, rented and flown numerous types of aircraft, from sailplanes and light sports aircraft to the Cessna Cardinals that he owns and flies today.
In his heyday, Peterson says he averaged around 150 hours flying every year. These days, with his kids living closer and less reason for long distance travel, he is down to 35-40. But even after all the hours he, Roffee and Maye have put on the plane, it is still going strong. “It’s in perfect condition,” says Peterson.
If you’re new to flying, or not as concerned with going fast, learning on a light-sport aircraft could be your ticket to the sky. Light-sport pilots have less rigorous requirements to meet than pilots who fly larger aircraft and more options for hand controls and training. If you are healthy enough to get your driver’s license, you can get a license to fly light-sport planes. Also, since LSA take off and land on shorter runways, are cheaper to rent or purchase and use less fuel, they’re also much cheaper to fly than larger planes.
There are many specialized programs to train LSA pilots who need hand controls or similar accommodations in order to fly. One such program is Able Flight, a nonprofit organization based in Indiana. Thanks to corporate sponsors, Able Flight provides flight training scholarships for several students with disabilities each year. Student pilots stay at Purdue University during the intensive six-week course.
Benedict Jones, a C7 quad from Bloomington, Indiana, received one of the scholarships and learned to fly in a LSA. The intensive training he received through the Able Flight scholarship allowed Jones to earn his sport pilot certification in six weeks.
Jones explained his feelings after his first solo flight in a posting on Facebook. “It was like nothing I’ve ever felt, a level of confidence and capability that’s eluded me for too long,” he wrote. “It seemed obvious that this program would be awesome, flying every day, twice a day — if we can — for six weeks. But I never realized how much I would truly love it.”
• Able Flight, ableflight.org
• East Bay Aviators, eastbayaviators.org
• Freedom’s Wings of Canada, freedomswings.ca
• Freedom’s Wings International, freedomswings.org
• Operation PROP, Inc, operationprop.org
• Philly Sport Pilot, phillysportpilot.com/sport.html