By J. DOUGLAS HINTON
Though all of us have heard stories about individuals overcoming physical impairments on the road to success, perhaps this tale is unique. Ben Schipps, from Venice, Florida, was born with only a third of a left arm and two hands that are catastrophically deformed. But he had a dream to become a pilot like the rest of his family.
The first hurdle was to get an FAA third class medical. The doctor took a look and suggested he direct his ambitions elsewhere.
Undeterred, Schipps would hang out beside the doctor’s office and accost him every time he came out in the hall. Finally, after 10 months of persistent pressure, he was given the required physical examination and scheduled to fly with a medical examiner. He passed the test with flying colors and went on to get his private pilot license while a senior in high school.
Then it was on to college at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where he continued to fly and amass further licenses and ratings, including commercial, instrument, single engine land/sea, and CFI, as well as graduating with a degree in Commercial Aviation.
The next step on his bucket list was to become a seaplane instructor, so he applied for a job at Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base at Winter Haven, Florida.
Brown, an ex-Naval Aviator, established an FBO there in 1963, later moving across the field to the shores of Lake Jessie where the seaplane operation was founded in 1975. With Jack’s passing, it is now owned and operated by sons Jon and Chuck. They offer a two-day seaplane rating for $1,200 using four Piper Cubs and a Maule on floats. They get about 400 applications a year and have so far graduated 17,000 students, employing three full-time instructors and several part-time. Either Jon or Chuck do the check rides.
When I asked Jon about his first impressions of Ben Schipps, he responded, “At first I was a bit startled by his physical handicaps, but that was soon allayed once we got in the airplane. It was one of the best check rides I’ve experienced. I hired him immediately on a one-year contract and I’ve never been sorry since.”
When I asked Schipps about a typical day at Brown’s, he said, “We start early with an hour of ground school, then a couple of hours flying before lunch, after which we spend a few more hours on and off the water. Next morning we launch at 7:30 for a few more hours before the check ride.”
Schipps realizes that many people are taken aback when they realize he is to be their seaplane instructor, including orthopedic surgeon Dr. Craig Jones of Orlando, owner of a Beechcraft E55 Baron. “I had some serious reservations about flying with Ben,” he reported, “which lasted all of 10 seconds after we got in the cockpit. The guy is truly amazing and a natural pilot. It was a thrilling and memorable experience!”
Jones said getting a seaplane rating “is just something I wanted to do. As you probably know, it’s virtually impossible to rent a seaplane for solo flying. You usually have to have an instructor pilot along for the ride. I guess it’s an insurance thing. But we’ll see where it goes. In the meantime, I want to sign up my wife for a seaplane rating!”
Schipps’ contract at Brown’s expires in July and he’s not sure yet what he’ll do then.
“I haven’t made up my mind yet,” he said with a smile. “I thought about bush flying in Alaska or perhaps the Caribbean. Both offer challenges and rewards. But I still have a few months to think about it. Meanwhile, I’m having the time of my life!”
It would appear that this remarkable young man, just 22, with his determination and will to succeed should have a bright future ahead of him.
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