If you've always wanted to take to the air as a private pilot, don't let a physical disability send your dream crashing to the ground. Many disabled individuals pass through flight training at aviation colleges with flying colors to become licensed pilots. Here are three important considerations to keep in mind as you plan your path onward and upward.
1. Fulfilling the Necessary Requirements
Aviation colleges commonly accept aspiring pilots with various disabilities for flight training. As long as you complete the various exams and training flights, completing your training program is just a matter of demonstrating the same essential skills and knowledge as your classmates. The biggest potential obstacle you may face is the medical flight test. This is the stage in which the instructor evaluates your disability's impact on your ability to handle the controls with the same dexterity and confidence as other pilots.
In some cases a physical condition that might cause sudden difficulties (such as a heart problem, epilepsy, or diabetes) may cause flight schools to rule a pilot unfit for solo flights. But this doesn't mean you have to give up your dream of flying—it simply means that you'll have to go up with a "safety pilot" in the cabin. Safety pilots merely sit and observe unless an emergency strikes, at which point they can take over the controls.
2. Choosing Your Tools
Once you've completed your flight training and you're rated to fly, you'll find that a great many light aircraft can accommodate removable adaptive devices to help you steer and operate other controls. This means you can purchase your own personal set of devices and attach them to various planes you may rent, borrow, or purchase. If you plan on flying your own plane exclusively, you can also investigate models designed specifically for disabled pilots.
If you can't complete your flight training or obtain a pilot's license, don't despair. While you won't be able to fly private planes, there are other kinds of craft that don't impose the same rigorous requirements. For instance, ultralight aircraft don't generally require anything beyond a standard driver's license. This category of aircraft includes powered or unpowered devices such as balloons, hang gliders, powered parachutes, and rotorcraft. Of course you'll still want to take 10 to 20 hours of formal instruction so you can pilot your ultralight safely.
3. Interacting with Airport Personnel
Communication between the pilot and the control tower is essential for avoiding nerve-wracking confusions and tragic mishaps. But this communication is usually managed over the radio—so what do you do if you can't hear questions or instructions? While a pilot with partial hearing loss might be able to compensate with hearing aids, a totally deaf pilot must use another mode of communication altogether. Fortunately, airports have to be prepared for every contingency, including a complete loss of radio communication with a plane, so they maintain just such an alternative: the light gun. These powerful colored lights send a combination of steady beams and flashes to convey the necessary instructions to you. You'll learn and use these signals in the course of your flight training.
While an able-bodied pilot can simply exit the plane upon landing, your particular physical challenge might make things a bit more complicated. If you cannot stand or walk under your own power, for instance, you'll need to request physical assistance from the ground crew in advance. Most US airports are both well equipped and perfectly willing to help disabled individuals, be they passengers or pilots. If you're flying for fun in another country, however, you can't necessarily make the same assumption. (Certain airfields, notably France's Bergerac Airport, are notoriously unhelpful about providing assistance to disabled pilots.) Always do your homework in advance to ascertain which airfields are most likely to meet your needs.
Arm yourself with the right knowledge and training, and you'll soon find yourself flying—not as a passenger, but as the pilot. Take heart—and take wing! Look into flight school at an establishment like Parkland College.