In an exclusive interview, Jessica Cox, the world’s first licensed armless pilot, talks about motivating and building authentic confidence in the disabled community. The first armless black belt runs Rightfooted Foundation International for mentoring and educating. She grew up using prosthetic arms which she had to practice with countless hours of therapy after school. After 11 years of wearing them, Jessica decided to stop using prosthetic arms and embrace what makes her different. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a degree in Psychology and Communication. She decided to pursue flight lessons to overcome her greatest fear: flying. After an arduous three years, she became a certified pilot, earning the title of the first woman to fly an aeroplane with her feet. Jessica travels the globe motivating people to overcome their perceived limitations with her inspirational speeches. She has spoken to audiences in 23 countries. For almost 20 years, Jessica has personally mentored over 100 children with disabilities and touched more than half a million people with her talks.
Has it been a tough decision for you to become a pilot?
It wasn’t a tough decision for me to become a pilot. The moment I first touched the controls of a small aeroplane by myself, I knew I wanted to become a pilot.
What challenges did you face from the day you decided to fly an aircraft?
I faced several challenges in becoming a pilot. The biggest challenge was figuring out how I could control an aeroplane with my feet when most aircraft are designed to be flown with both hands and feet. The solution was a vintage aeroplane. Ercoupe are designed and built in the 1940s to be simple and easy to fly. Two of the controls, the rudder and aileron, are normally independent. In Ercoupe, they are linked together. That meant I could put one foot on the throttle and the other foot on the yoke. I was able to fly the aeroplane. It was a long and difficult process, but I never gave up on my dream.
What was your reaction when you flew for the first time piloting an aircraft?
When I flew for the first time piloting an aeroplane by myself, I felt an incredible sense of freedom and empowerment. It was an amazing feeling, and it made all of the hard work and challenges that I had faced up to that point completely worth it.
What advice do you give to People with Disabilities keen to pursue the dream of becoming a pilot?
My advice for those with disabilities who want to pursue the dream of becoming a pilot is to never give up. Surround yourself with supportive and encouraging people, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Unfortunately, aviation still has a long way to go to be accessible to all People with Disabilities. We call for all to work together to change the scenario.
Are the rules/regulations hinder disabled people from pursuing their career dreams or there is a lack of ambition and the will to overcome barriers?
Lack of ambition and will overcome barriers is not what hinders pilots with disabilities from pursuing their dream careers. It is the rules, regulations, and the environment that can be very restrictive and make it difficult for disabled people to enter the aviation industry. Many regulators make assumptions about them. The design of aeroplanes is also a challenge. Over the years, people have created hand controls for pilots to fly without the use of their feet. Only two small aircraft manufacturers that I know of provide those modifications as legal changes to their aircraft.
However, the experimental aircraft category is an expanding option for recreational or private pilots to modify their aircraft to accommodate their disabilities.
Did you get the family’s support in your endeavour?
Yes, I did receive the support of my family to learn to fly, which was incredibly important to me. Having a support system in place is crucial when pursuing a difficult goal, like becoming a pilot.
Is the aviation industry encourages women to enter the cockpit?
The aviation industry has become very receptive and encouraging for women to become pilots. However, there is still more work that needs to be done to create a more diverse and inclusive industry. As of 2022, nine per cent of pilots in the US were women, an increase of 50 per cent over the previous decade.
How do you overcome the challenges on the ground and in the air?
To overcome challenges both on the ground and in the air, it’s important to stay focused, remain positive, and be prepared for anything that may come your way. Also, it’s important to have a strong support system in place to help you when you need it.
What is your advice for encouraging the disabled community in the UAE to break the barriers in domains like aviation?
My advice for UAE is to continue to eliminate the physical and social barriers that hold People with Disabilities back. Also, it is important to raise awareness about the capabilities and potential of people with disabilities. About 20 per cent of the global population will experience a disability at some point in their lifetime. When we go about our daily lives in a country and don’t see 20 per cent of the people around us living their lives with a disability, we should ask, “Are there still barriers that need to be eliminated?”
Are flying schools encouraging disabled people to take to flying aircraft?
Flying schools in the world are starting to become more encouraging for people with disabilities to become pilots. I hear from many flight instructors across the US who have used my story of flying without arms at some point while training their students. However, there is still a long way to go, and more needs to be done to create more opportunities for people with disabilities. For example, the US Federal Aviation Administration has only recently rolled back restrictions on pilots with diabetes.
Is it very difficult for a person with a disability to become a commercial pilot?
Becoming a commercial pilot as a person with a disability can be very difficult, and sometimes regulations and rules make it impossible. I am currently going through a medical evaluation to get a higher-level pilot’s license. No one without arms has ever passed this evaluation, and if I cannot pass it, I will not be allowed to fly at all. Flying an aeroplane is a demanding task, both physically and mentally. If I thought I couldn’t do it safely, I wouldn’t.
Is the Middle East region having a high potential for women to break the long-prevailing glass ceiling?
I believe that the Middle East region has immense potential for women to break the glass ceiling. It’s important to create more opportunities for women to pursue their dreams and lead industries into the new future.
Your advice for Dubai to better the disabled community?
My advice for Dubai to better the disabled community’s dreams and ambitions is to create more inclusive programs and opportunities and to raise awareness about the potential and capabilities of people with disabilities. Several programs and policies can eliminate barriers that stand in the way of people with disabilities, but it’s only when all the barriers have been removed that people with disabilities can truly be full members of the whole community.
Are rules and regulations fair and encouraging for disabled people to pursue tough careers like pilots?
Rules and regulations around the world can be unfair and discouraging for people with disabilities to pursue tough careers like pilots. It’s important to create more inclusive policies and regulations that take into account the potential and capabilities of people with disabilities. Change is happening, but it is slow.
You want to build an aeroplane designed especially for people without upper limbs and who use feet to pilot an aircraft.
When it will become a reality?
I call it The Impossible Airplane because most people would consider it impossible to build an aeroplane like this. Many regulatory, financial, and creative roadblocks must be overcome to make this aeroplane a reality. First, I love flying my 1946 Ercoupe, so we thought we could modify the controls to put them on the floor, instead of up high on the panel. But the regulations for modifying an existing aircraft are very restrictive. Instead, we decided to build a new, experimental aeroplane. In the US, experimental aircraft can have a wide range of freedoms. We are building using a Van’s Aircraft RV-10 as the foundation. Aircraft are also expensive, especially when they are custom, like this one. As a first-of-its-kind aeroplane, we have to test, modify and invent new components to make it work. We are about 25 per cent of the way there right now, and anyone who would like to donate to the project can visit www.theimpossibleairplane.com. With enough funding, I hope to fly around the world with Dubai as a stopover, InshaAllah.
Source: AccessAbilities Expo Team