The Gift of Flight: Able to Aviation gives wings to the physically disabled

“There’s something about learning to fly that makes you feel as if nothing is impossible. It is a rewarding accomplishment no matter what, but if you are facing some physical challenges, that feeling of accomplishment is increased,” says James Kaler, president and founder of Able to Aviation. “Flying gives you a whole new perspective.”

And he should know.

Before creating Able to Aviation, Kaler was a corporate pilot, flying around the world in jets. It was his dream job, he says, until 2003 when a surfing accident damaged his spinal cord. He knew he could still work in aviation, but on the desk side of things — and that wasn’t quite enough for him.

Rather than give up flying he started looking for a way to get back into the cockpit as pilot in command. He then started wondering how it would be possible to enable more people who are mobility challenged to attain the dream of flight.

In 2004 he founded Able to Aviation, a not-for-profit organization that provides free flight training to people who are physically disabled.

“In order to qualify, their disability has to limit them in their daily living,” says Kaler, 34, who notes that most of the clientele are in wheelchairs.

Training is done at Bayport Aerodrome (23N) on Long Island in New York.

“We have a 1968 Cessna 177 Cardinal with a 180 horsepower engine and a constant speed propeller. It has the STC’d portable hand controls,” says Kaler.

The Cardinal is a favorite among wheelchair aviators, he says, because it sits low to the ground and there is not a strut blocking the door, making it easy to get in and out of.

Not all of the people who come to the organization necessarily want to become licensed private pilots. Some just want to solo. Others just enjoy the freedom of being out of their chairs and in the air for awhile.

Those who do want to obtain their licenses can progress as far as their talent and skills take them, notes Kaler.

“They have to do everything an able-bodied person has to do — and a little bit more,” he says.

Each applicant has to take a special check ride, called the Statement of Demonstrated Ability, or SODA ride, with an FAA examiner to demonstrate their physical ability in the aircraft.

Kaler says the local Flight Standards District Office has experience with wheelchair aviators, so the ride is pretty much routine.

THE BOTTOM LINE

When he is not providing instruction, Kaler focuses on attracting more clients and sponsors to the program. In order to do so, he made the rounds at AirVenture 2006. General Aviation News caught up with Kaler at the Able to Aviation booth. The organization’s bright yellow Cessna Cardinal dominated the display. Kaler proudly pointed to the logos of various corporate sponsors on the tail, including Cessna Aircraft Co.

“The freedom of flight is at the heart of everything we do at Cessna,” said Jack J. Pelton, Cessna’s chairman, president and CEO. “We have great admiration for James, not only because he has overcome enormous personal challenges, but also because he has given the freedom of flight to those who would never otherwise have that opportunity.”

When he first started Able to Aviation, Kaler found prospective clients through organizations and clubs for people with spinal cord injuries. He proudly notes that as Able to Aviation has grown, so has the ability to attract new clients.

“We now have our website up (Able-To-Aviation.com) and people are finding out about us through the Internet,” he says. “We have people reaching out to us from around the country. We flew 20 people in 2005 and, of those, 10 have continued training toward becoming certified pilots,” he notes, adding that when he got home from AirVenture he had a waiting list of 32 people who were slated to begin their flight training.

“The goal is not to try to force every physically disabled person to become a pilot,” he says. “It is to give them the opportunity to do something that they never thought possible. It’s a chance for them to experience the freedom aviation has to offer.”

THE FUTURE

When he created Able to Aviation Kaler allowed himself five years to grow the organization. Although it is still in its infancy, he is making plans for the future.

“In the next three years we will have two airplanes, both Cessna Cardinals. We’ll also be working on adding a third airplane at that time,” he says. “Hopefully we will have had at least five people get their licenses.”

It can take a bit longer for physically disabled pilots to earn their certificates, he notes. “But that is fine by me,” he says. “As long as we have funding for the airplane, it will keep flying.”

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