It’s opportunity many of these students never thought possible.
The program is called Able Flight. Purdue University has hosted it for the past seven years, and it’s the only program in the state where people with disabilities can learn how to fly.
In 2008, Wesley Major was in a motorcycle accident and now has paraplegia. He uses a wheel chair to get around. During recovery, his mentor, another graduate of Able Flight, introduced him to the program.
Now, he’s been flying for five years.
“During the rehab process I focused a lot on what I cannot do. I can’t play hockey anymore, I can’t go up steps, I can’t run,” he says. “But the Able Flight program did the opposite. It opened the doors to what you’re capable of actually doing.”
During the six-week program, students spend time in the classroom and using a virtual simulator before before they’re introduced to the open skies.
All Able Flight pilots train on a small sport aircraft that is modified for each individual user. For Major, all he has to do is add an additional handle to his controls.
It’s a quick change that allows Major to do things with his hands that a pilot without his disability would do with their feet.
Purdue Aviation Professor Bernie Wulle oversees the program. He says Able Flight has made the entire School of Aviation and Transportation Technology better. Flight instructors learn to be more adaptable to their students’ abilities and learning styles, and engineers look to make aircraft more accessible.
“We don’t redesign anything, but it does get other people thinking,” Wulle says. “We’ve had a couple of engineers start looking at how to do hand controls for a variety of different airplanes.”
Wulle says Able Flight participants have the same requirements any pilot would need to get certified.
“It’s a very intensive program. They are going through basically the same thing a private pilot would here, and most private pilots would take four to six months, and they’ve gotta do it within six weeks.”
Over the years, the program has hosted people with paraplegia and quadriplegia, people who are Deaf, and even someone with diabetes.
Raymart Tinio always wanted to fly, but he could never get a certified flight instructor to take him on as a student. Tinio is Deaf, and he finally got his chance to fly when he received a scholarship from Able Flight two years ago.
He uses several methods to communicate with the Air Traffic control tower.
“Most of the airspace doesn’t require the use of radio. So if required, we can use the light gun signals method, or something like texting,” he says.
As a Purdue student, Tinio researches how to make flying more accessible for deaf pilots like himself. Since the program, he’s gone on to earn his private pilot certificate and hopes to one day be a professional pilot.
And are people surprised to find out he can fly?
“There are many different responses. Some people did not believe it and said I can’t. I had to quietly explain and educate them,” he says. “Most people are surprised and inspired that disabled people and Deaf people can.”
Tinio and Major are just two of the more than 50 graduates of Purdue’s Able Flight program.
Wulle is set to retire within the next two years, and the university selected Major as the next director of the Able Flight program. Able Flight will welcome its eighth class of students next summer.