Flying with disabilities

Reconnecting post-pandemic with the good people behind UK charity Aerobility was a timely reminder of aviation’s power to change lives. Founded in 1993, the organization provides anyone with a disability with access to the magic and wonder of flight. This can take the form of a simple joyride right up to training for a license with the charity’s instructors.

Aerobility is unique in that it’s run largely by disabled aviators, for disabled people. And it is not just for those who are wheelchair-bound. Many have hidden disabilities. Before COVID-19 sparked a global pandemic, the charity was supporting around 1,000 disabled people a year through its various activities. All who walk through the doors of the Aerobility HQ at Blackbushe Airport, located on the borders of Hampshire, Berkshire and Surrey, later leave with a profound realization: “If I can fly an airplane, what else can I do?” Some past flyers have gone on to continue flying, with some securing a Private Pilot License.

Yet despite the Chicago convention, which allows pilots who pass standard fitness and medical criteria to obtain a pilot medical certificate, many countries still make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for people with disabilities to fly themselves. One of the most significant hurdles for disabled people to overcome is a flight test. Often this involves an examiner determining whether the disabled pilot can control their aircraft equally as well as an able-bodied pilot at the same point of their training.

Yet many pilots with disabilities go on to pass such tests. Approved modifications can be made to aircraft to enable some controls to be activated using alternative means, such as the rudder being moved with a hand-controller instead of the more familiar foot pedals. Such sensible adaptations have existed for many years and by now perhaps shouldn’t be quite so remarkable.

But sadly, more countries have yet to open up flying to disabled people. Talking to Aerobility’s top team at the charity’s recent virtual Armchair Airshow – broadcast from Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar in May – the example of Africa was cited, where disability aviation is pretty much unheard of. Even in Europe, where it might be mistakenly assumed that aviation is more sophisticated than in some parts of the world, a number of countries still do not recognize, understand or support disabled flying. It’s nothing short of a scandal when you consider how powerful flying can be to support the mental health of disabled people.

Aerobility trustee and Royal Navy veteran Neil Tucker was a successful entrepreneur when he suffered devastating injuries in a motorcycle accident. He subsequently lost his business and freely admits he was in a dark corner and quite vulnerable, having lost his left leg and the use of his left arm in the crash. Learning to fly with Aerobility renewed his enthusiasm for life – his sense of achievement was incredible, he said – and today, Neil is a trustee of the charity.

“Anything is possible,” Tucker said. “When you get up in the sky you are just another voice on the radio. Many of those who find the charity may only do one flight with us. But it is a life step and a transformational point. The sense of community in aviation grabs you as soon as you walk through the door. My message to any disabled person who is struggling is, don’t be scared, don’t think you can’t do it.’’

Tucker explained how frustrating being shut out of aviation is for would-be disabled pilots and their instructors who know they can achieve their goals, but it’s not part and parcel of the culture of certain countries.

“You can do it and it’s possible. It’s not dangerous and we won’t come tumbling out of the sky because we have a disability,” Tucker said. “It’s not about legality but the ability to get a medical that will allow you to fly.”

I was also moved listening to young Harvey Matthewson, Aerobility’s aviation activities officer, who began flying with the charity after a trip to Africa convinced him to conquer his lifelong fear of flying. He gained his private pilot’s license in 2019.

Harvey, who has cerebral palsy, said: “When you go flying your mind clears and you leave your problems on the ground. When you get back, you’re allowed to start your life again from a new position of clarity. I would recommend it for anyone, even if they’re not interested in aviation. Taking control of an aircraft – for a disabled person who may be reliant on others and be very constrained on the ground – you are suddenly able to move an aircraft in three dimensions. It can be very liberating, and that magic can leak into other parts of your life. It could help you to do better at school or gain the confidence to get your first job.”

Another example of the difficulties some disabled pilots face was someone with cerebral palsy who learned to fly with Aerobility. He had a UK based license but post-Brexit his flying has been stopped because of where he lives within the European Union. The country now does not recognize his UK license, which enabled him to fly with his disability.

More could and should be done to lobby various states that such discrimination has no place in the modern world.

It’s not just getting disabled people aloft that is keeping Aerobility’s chief executive Mike Miller-Smith busy right now. He’s excited to be doing new things such as working with the commercial air transport industry to increase accessibility for those who most need it. “Commercial travel is still difficult for people with disabilities. It’s still tricky to travel on an airliner,” Miller-Smith explained.

Mainstream media frequently highlight cases of disabled passengers being abandoned in their wheelchairs for hours at time or being left onboard aircraft until a suitable piece of lift equipment can be found so they can leave.

Looking further ahead, Aerobility is also working with the Urban Air Mobility and eVTOL industries to ensure accessibility is built in from design for disabilities of all types. So, the future is looking brighter for the UK’s keen disabled pilots and hopefully commercial passengers.

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