Wheelchairs and learning to fly is not an obvious match, I’ve never liked to be told what to do.
I learnt to fly in 2012 after being awarded a flying scholarship. To explain how the scholarship from Flying Scholarships for Disabled People, changed my life I want to give you a view of where I was six years prior. I had hit rock bottom, and had serious depression, even though it appeared all was well to any observer, including my family. I had been married for ten years and it was not a team effort, my spirit was crushed in every way and lost my voice. I felt I was a complete waste of healthy organs. I was working full time in a great technical support job that I loved and knowing I was good at something, and with an encouraging boss, kept me going. Rock bottom meant that I checked myself into a hospital for a month as I knew a holiday wasn’t going to cut it and then spent four years in weekly therapy where you do a lot of thinking. I felt much stronger and was also running short of money for therapy, which I considered my gym membership. Money spent on your emotional health is an investment, I referred to it as doing a college course on myself. Failure was not an option.
During that time I realised what I wanted and that was to be free and in the air. So it was a dream come true after 20 plus years. It has been a pinnacle of my post divorce new life and confirms to me I was right to follow my heart.
It’s shown me I can do something amazing that many non-disabled people (and men!) can’t do. It made me realise I’m a lot brighter than I had thought, when you’re put down a lot, you doubt all of your decisions. It makes people think about me (and other wheelchair users) differently and reconsider their own potential and dreams. You have total control in the air, huge responsibility combined with huge fun and it’s liberating, with breathing taking views on every flight. The joy and learning never stops.
Its given me huge opportunities to meet like minded aero geeks who are supportive and encouraging. People who like to hang out at airfields, have fun with and meet at events. The network is amazing, in aviation you’re a pilot first, all other stuff is secondary. I’m not a fan of labels, however solo pilot makes me extremely proud. I’ve made firm friends in social circles I would never have met before the scholarship, from all trades and backgrounds. These guys pick me up when I get down, tease me, feed me and remind me I can fly solo. The love and care shown to me is unwavering /overwhelming compared to my pre-flying life a few years ago. I’m accepted at my air school and it feels right. On my last day of my scholarship I was visited by my good
fiends Susie and Rosemary from the FSDP and there is no doubt that helped me go solo on my final day. I’m a big believer in team work.
I’ve also been lucky enough to go to iconic places like RAF Cranwell and attend the Royal International Air Tattoo. I’ve met my all time hero twice, Dr. Buzz Aldrin, and that doesn’t happen in real life to a normal person.
Today I’m happier being true to myself and don’t worry about the years before or the future. When I get my PPL it will be the biggest single achievement of my life. I was never a marriage or babies kind of girl. At 16 I thought flying would never happen in my lifetime, a disabled girl from Edmonton.
I’m not sure if I can express how much I wanted this to happen but the fact that it has, reminds me that you have to keep working away and follow your path even if it is the very long way round.
I have been privileged to volunteer for the FSDP as a mentor to new candidates since 2013. Seeing people bloom is the default result.
The scholarship experience gave me:
• Freedom in the air and on the ground, welcome space to be myself
• A self belief which is rock solid 99% of the time
• A family of supportive friends
• A positive goal to reach for
This life event allowed me to strive for other goals and since 2012 I was promoted within the software organisation where I worked, traveled extensively, continued to work on my personal
development (I’m a course addict), took a leap to find love again (and retain my new Keanu Reeves standard), left the IT industry after 28 years to retrain as a professional coach and start my
own coaching business. In between I have also met many of my space heroes (Buzz Aldrin, Tim Peake, Michael Foale and Helen Sharman) and I now have the confidence to approach people and
make things happen. And have fun doing it.
Here’s some aviation history and heroes of mine:
Throughout World War I and II pilots who were injured continued with their flying careers, and had to be creative and adaptable to get the job done. Think of Sir Douglas Badar, who is probably themost famous aviator due to the film Reach For the Sky. Check it out, he was pretty wild in his day.
Fast forward to now, and we have current pilots with a variety of disabilities. Aviation is an expensive drug, I’m not going to lie to you. However, attending air shows or your local airfield is a cheap way of getting a fix. If you’re interested in the freedom, travel, engineering, meteorology, navigation skills or the beauty of the aircraft there is something for everyone. There are also scholarships available, details below or contact me directly for more info. There are many regular disabled flyers and here are a few to show you what can be done.
Nathan Doidge – UK, http://www.nathandoidge.com A former FSDP scholar and all round adrenaline junkie with severe Cerebral Palsy (CP). Nathan gained his pilot’s licence in August 2012,
becoming the most disabled pilot in the UK and continues to smash preconceptions by being an all out party animal and good bloke. I’m lucky to call Nathan a friend and he is a great ambassador for living out loud (if only I could keep up!).
Jessica Cox – USA, https://www.jessicacox.com
Jessica holds the Guinness World Record for being the first armless person in aviation history to earn a pilot’s certificate. She is also a Black Belt in Taekwondo so could totally kick all our butts. Jessica is currently in litigation with Universal Orlando, as she was refused entry on one of their rides. There are limitations on various attractions for those with prosthetics and those
without legs, and Jessica is looking for a change in their blanket rule. Jessica works as a motivational speaker and advocate.
Dave Jacka – AUS, http://davejacka.com Dave broke his neck at 19, leaving him with just 6% physical function. Dave has a project management and engineering background, and I was lucky enough to
meet up with him in Australia for some geekery. His achievements include being the first quadriplegic to fly solo around Australia, taking 38 days, using his breath for engine speed management instead of hands. This is epic, and shows how hard core Dave is. In 2016 Dave was the first quad to paddle a kayak 2226 km down the Murray River in Australia. Dave was awarded an Order of Australia Medal for his contribution to people with a disability through sport, and completed the 8 Deserts Run in 2017.
And there’s a bunch of Italians which are too cool for school. A team of microlight display pilots, which perform at shows worldwide and hangout with astronauts like astronaut Samantha
Cristoforetti. Flight engineer on the International Space Station for Expedition 42/43. http://www.weflyteam.com/wefly/Home.html
© WeFly Team
Dave Sykes, from West Yorkshire, is a microlight pilot and adventurer. In 2011 Dave flew solo from the UK to Sydney Australia, this amazing trip took 4 months to complete and
covered over 16,000 miles and 257 hours flying making him the first paraplegic in the world to do it. Dave used the journey to help raise money for the Yorkshire Air Ambulance.
Dave has since embarked on flights to the North Pole and is constantly planning epic adventures. Dave is hard core.
There is also UK based acrobatics team being selected as I write this. This will be the uber cool team to aspire to as a disabled pilot. I cannot wait to see some of my friends in
action. If you’re going through hell, keep going. If something has knocked you off course, get back on track. Find something to focus on that makes your heart scream with the joy of possibility. And if it’s outrageous fun, shakes up perceptions and promotes equality even better. Get down to your local flying school and never look back.
Flying Scholarships for Disabled People, http://www.fsdp.org.uk, is a charity that provides a ‘once in a lifetime’ challenge for disabled people to help them realise their abilities through the medium of learning to fly. Get online for an application form and submit by 30 November 2018. Do it now, no guts, no glory. Tell them Mary sent you.