People with disabilities must face many barriers in their lives, but learning to fly an airplane isn’t necessarily one of them. There are many pilots who fly despite disabilities and actually use the airplane to overcome them.
Where Feet Have Never Trod
There are pilots who fly just like the rest of us in the air, but are confined to a wheelchair on the ground. Pilots who do not have the use of their legs, must operate the airplane’s rudder controls with their hands instead of their feet. This requires a device that connects the rudder pedals to hand controls. The device can be portable or can be installed permanently. If permanently installed, it must be approved by the FAA and a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) must be issued for the airplane.
Any Pilot Can Walk Tall
A pilot who has a disability can still, in many cases, get a medical certificate to fly. They might not meet the standard requirements for a medical certificate, but could receive what is called a SODA — a Statement Of Demonstrated Ability. Getting a SODA starts at the doctor’s office with a physician who is also an Airman’s Medical Examiner. The doctor will conduct the medical exam and if the applicant does not meet the medical requirements due to a disability, then the doctor can ask the FAA for a SODA. The FAA will likely request additional medical records/information, or even ask the applicant to submit to additional tests. After reviewing the information, the FAA will then either deny the medical certificate or grant permission for the applicant to take a Medical Flight Test (or ‘SODA flight‘) with an FAA inspector. The FAA inspector must then determine if the applicant can reach and operate all controls. The procedure is the same used for people who might have deformities and/or absence of extremities. If satisfied that the pilot can operate the controls safely, the inspector can issue the medical certificate together with the SODA.
Note: The SODA flight can be taken at different times during a pilot’s training, but usually sooner is better. A flight instructor and disabled student can fly together through the dual lessons leading up to the first solo, and then have the FAA inspector conduct the SODA flight just prior to the first solo. Most CFIs will conduct a pre-solo flight review with their students anyway — so you can just make that the SODA flight.
While The Rest Of Us Shop For ANR Headsets…
People who are deaf can also become pilots, but they also will need a SODA. When a medical certificate is issued to a deaf pilot it will say, ‘not valid for flying where radio use is required.’ On the SODA flight, deaf pilots are required to demonstrate that they can detect the loss of engine power by instrument scan and/or change in vibration, and can recognize the onset of a stall with their eyes and by feeling the aerodynamic buffeting… as we all should.
Others Are Breaking The Sound Barrier
When you think about it, flying with a deaf pilot in the traffic pattern of an uncontrolled airport would be no different than flying in the pattern with an airplane that has no radio. To become a Private Pilot, all applicants must make three solo takeoffs and landings at an airport with an operating control tower. Coordination with the controller allows deaf pilots to meet this requirement using light gun signals. Deaf people can obtain pilot certificate as recreational pilots, private pilots, and on a limited basis can become commercial pilots. These limitations would not keep a deaf commercial pilot from towing banners, flying on powerline patrol, or crop dusting. The FAA knowledge tests are all now given on the computer in multiple choice format, and weather reports can be read from computer — all without the need for hearing. And when it comes time to pass a checkride, interpreters are allowed on the FAA practical tests.
BOTTOM LINE: It is possible. There are national organizations for disabled, wheelchair, and deaf pilots who can help. You can do your part by passing on the information that a disability may not necessarily end the dream to fly. I know a wheelchair pilot who loves to fly for all the same reasons that I do, but also because while in flight he has no disability. Perhaps he even enjoys it more than I do.