Fulfilling dreams with Able Flight

Teaching someone to fly is always a challenge. Now imagine that the person you are teaching is disabled.

It happens every day, thanks to Able Flight, a non-profit organization founded in 2006 by Charles Stites, a pilot who believes that the life-changing experience of learning to fly is best shared, which is why he created an organization to award scholarships to help people with disabilities pursue flight training.

As of this summer, Able Flight had awarded 34 scholarships, with most of those being full scholarships that led to a license, Stites said. Several covered “return to flight” training for people who already had their licenses and were coming back after an illness or injury. There have also been Flight Training Challenge scholarships for people not yet ready to go for a license, as well as Career Training Scholarships for those who want to fix airplanes, as well as fly them.

The training is done at several locations around the country, but one of the busiest is Hansen Aero Group in Atlanta.

“We had the Sky Arrow 600 with the adaptive hand controls that gave Charles the idea for Able Flight,” said Mitch Hansen, the first CFI to work with Able Flight scholarship recipients.

The Hansens are the North American distributors for several Light-Sport Aircraft, including the tandem-seat Sky Arrow. The entire family is involved in aviation. Mitch and his twin brother Mike are airline pilots when they are not selling airplanes with father Jon and uncle Ron. They’ve been backers of Able Flight since the organization was created and, in fact, donated all the aircraft time for the first two Able Flight scholarship recipients.

According to Stites, the creation of the Sport Pilot certificate was critical in the creation of Able Flight, because it lowers the cost of training. Instead of requiring a minimum of 40 hours to be eligible for a private pilot certificate, the student can qualify for a Sport Pilot ticket in as few as 20 hours.

Able Flight’s goal, says Stites, is to get as many people into the cockpit as possible. The scholarships are supported by donations.

The program was such a quick success that Mitch Hansen soon found himself looking for more CFIs.

The first was Mike Davidson, a furloughed Delta pilot who is now a captain at Jet Blue. “He got involved when I met him on a hotel bus at the Atlanta airport and we started talking about flight instructing,” Hansen recalls. “The students love him cause he knows his stuff and it’s like flying with a cross between Jeff Foxworthy and R. Lee Ermey. He’s been donating his time since January 2007 and helped me get Able Flight’s first graduate, Brad Jones, ready for his check ride. He is still helping out.”

Next to join in the effort was Matt Hansen, Mitch’s second cousin. “I helped him get his private pilot’s license and then his Sport Pilot CFI while he was in college,” Mitch says. “He was our only full-time instructor here and flew with a lot of the students. In fact, he received the Able Flight instructor of the year award because of all the students he flew with. He spent last year flying in the Bahamas for the United Methodist Committee on Relief, even doing some flights to Haiti. He just got married and started class at Express Jet/ ASA and is moving to Winnipeg, so I don’t know how much time he’ll have available in the future.

According to Hansen, one of the biggest challenges for CFIs is having to change the way they communicate concepts, “such as ‘more right rudder’, because you can’t say ‘step on the ball’ when the client doesn’t have the use of their legs.

“You have to be innovative,” he continues. “All students bring their own unique challenges, but Able Flight students present challenges a CFI wouldn’t normally expect to see. You might have to engineer a strap to help them hold the stick, figure out how to get in the aircraft, teach them how to make sure the oil is good when they can’t reach it, use a 50-pound bag of cat litter as ballast. When confronted with a new challenge, the instructor has to automatically think ‘we’ll find a way’. Finding ways to meet those challenges is what the program is all about for the students, as well as the instructors. It’s also why I’m especially proud of my Able Flight students and instructors.”

It also helps if the CFI is familiar with LSAs and their characteristics. “The light wing loading and high performance can be a challenge to some CFIs,” said Hansen.

One of the best parts of being a flight instructor is when one of your students decides to become one. Sean O’Donnell, the second person to become a Sport Pilot through Able Flight, did just that.

“O’Donnell participated in Able Flight’s special Oshkosh training project in July 2007, working with instructor Kate Bernard,” said Hansen, noting that O’Donnell did his training in a Sky Arrow 600 and passed his check ride on the opening day of AirVenture 2007.

“Later in 2007 Sean purchased an adapted Sky Arrow 600 and opened Philly Sport Pilot, a flight training operation in the Philadelphia area. In 2008, he and fellow Able Flight pilot Brad Jones were the pilots of the Ability Barnstorming Tour, which covered seven cities in a week with an arrival in AeroShell Square on the opening day of AirVenture 2008.”

In January 2011, O’Donnell and Able Flight scholarship recipient Heather Schultz conducted Freedom Flight, a multi-state goodwill campaign to spread the word about Able Flight and to help make it possible for wounded veterans to become pilots through Able Flight scholarships.

The Sky Arrow 600 is a particular favorite of Able Flight, because it’s fairly easy for someone with limited mobility to get in and out of, and there is space for a wheelchair.

“It’s the hardest-working LSA in the business,” says O’Donnell of his Sky Arrow. “It flies about 250 hours a year. We are currently partnered up with the Aeroways at New Castle Airport (ILG) at Wilmington, Delaware. Aeroways was very welcoming and allows us to be their Light-Sport Arm, if you will. We utilize their instructors to bring the light sport market to the area,” he says, adding that they have helped approximately 50 people acquire Sport Pilot certificates so far, including about 10 disabled pilots.

O’Donnell, who already has a full-time job as director of distance learning education at Villanova University, considers the flight school his calling. “I had an overwhelming desire to ‘pay it forward’,” he said. “I was able to train through the kindness and generosity of others, which I think all student pilots feel to some degree. But mine was amplified by the fact that I had been given a scholarship and the ability to fly a rare plane with hand controls.”

For more information: AbleFlight.org

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