Adaptive Flying: Freedom at It’s Best

Purdue instructor talks flight details with Able Flight student Melissa Allensworth prior to take-off.

Purdue instructor talks flight details with Able Flight student Melissa Allensworth prior to take-off.

When the Wright Brothers invented airplanes nearly 100 years ago, they probably never imagined quadriplegics and paraplegics taking to the skies. Thanks to technological advances over the last 20 years, the skies are becoming more and more accessible to persons of all abilities, even those pursuing their pilot’s license.

From hand controls that can come standard on small-engine aircraft to Sip ‘n Puff mouth controls for quadriplegic pilots, a sweeping array of technology allows people with paralysis the opportunity to fly, opening up entire new worlds and experiences. Read on for an overview of one of the fastest-growing adaptive sports out there – adaptive flying.

Paraplegic Pilot Tips

While it’s hard to pinpoint the first paraplegic to ever fly a plane, one of the first and most influential is Suzi Duncan from Australia. Having contracted polio as a child, Suzi was a young woman when she discovered flying. Passionate about aviation, she became a commercial pilot and flight instructor before going on to invent the Vision Air Hand Control. Read more about Suzi and her adaptive flying organization – Wheelies with Wings – here.

This hand control allows full use of the rudder both on the ground and in the air by pilots that can only use their arms. There are several other types of hand controls available in the United States and overseas in Europe and Australia. A handful of planes also come with hand controls, if requested, from the manufacturer. One of these is a Sky Arrow 600 Sport aircraft.

Quadriplegic Pilots Tips

Quadriplegics that are injured at the C5 level and above are taking to the skies too. One of the most famous quadriplegic pilots out there is also from Australia. His name is Dave Jacka and he is a C5-6 quad who flies using tri-pin hand controls for the rudder and brakes. He uses a Sip ‘n Puff mouth control to control the engine while his arms are occupied (video below).

If you’re interested in learning how to fly using adaptive equipment, especially if you’re a quadriplegic, several options are available in the US, UK and Australia. One of the most well-known adaptive flying programs is Able Flight (link below) in North Carolina, which offers scholarships to people with spinal cord injuries and other disabilities, teaching them everything they need to know in about five to six weeks so they can obtain their pilot’s license.

Meet Kevin Crombie: Quad Pilot and FAA Engineer

Kevin Crombie next to his plane, a Piper Cherokee 180.

Kevin Crombie next to his plane, a Piper Cherokee 180.

One of their most noteworthy program graduates is Kevin Crombie. Paralyzed by transverse myletis as a baby, he doesn’t remember what it feels like to walk, but he doesn’t mind that because flying is where his heart is. When he was a little boy, his dad was a commercial pilot, which instilled in him the desire to get his sport pilot’s license one day.

And in 2011 at the age of 21, he did just that. He was one of the first graduates of the Able Flight program. “I received a scholarship from Able Flight to train at Purdue University,” says Crombie. “The program consisted of an intensive 5-6 week training program where I lived at Purdue and attended daily classroom training along with flight training.”

Why does he love fly? “There is no better feeling than the freedom of flight,” he says. “In a world where we are always having to look up to people, while you’re flying you have the perspective of looking down on everyone. Also, you get a perspective check. You really get to see how communities are connected and how big the world is and how small your problems are.”

Getting his FAA medical and finding an adapted plane were trickier parts of becoming a full-fledged pilot, but it was worth it. He also loves flying solo, and does so often to see family. He’ll even bring teammates along for quad rugby tournaments (he is the vice president of the USA quad rugby team). “I mostly fly between DC and southern VA where my family lives. My plane has an approximate range of 600 miles.”

His plane is a Piper Cherokee 180 (PA-28-180) single engine 4 seat airplane that’s outfitted with Black Sky hand controls (to operate the rudder pedals and toe brakes). “Buying a plane is comparable to buying a new car (like a Toyota; so not a high-end car) and is about as expensive to own and keep up as a boat.” “It is expensive but it enables me to do so much that I otherwise couldn’t.”

Adaptive flying is a great equalizer. When you’re up in the sky, we’re all on the same playing field, and that’s a feeling everyone deserves to experience post-injury.

Have you tried flying post-injury? How did it go?

Adaptive Flying Schools/Scholarships

Able Flight (NC, USA)


Wheelies with Wings (Australia)

Freedom’s Wings International

Freedom In The Air (UK)

The APT Charitable Trust (UK)

Challenge Air (for kids with SCI)

International Wheelchair Aviators

Adaptive Aviation Videos

Inspirational Paraplegic Pilot: Captain Stewart McQuillan

Amazing: Paraplegic pilot flies solo from UK to Australia

Dave Jacka – Come fly with me (a quadriplegic pilot shows how he flies)

Paraplegic pilot Dillon Red flies modified Paradise Aircraft P1 light sport aircraft

Woman with Disability Learns to Fly

Flying with Quadriplegia: My First Flight as a Pilot

Freedom Fly Day with UK Paralympian Anne Wafula-Strike

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