Learning to fly is challenging for most people. You have to get the money together and put in the time, overcome learning plateaus, and weather, and equipment challenges. Scott Miller from Albia, Iowa, had an additional challenge on the path to getting his wings — he is in a wheelchair.
Miller’s journey began in 2006 while serving in the National Guard. He was riding his motorcycle home from a military drill in Des Moines, when he hit a pothole and crashed. The accident broke his back, paralyzing him from the waist down.
While the accident changed Miller’s life, he said it also made him appreciate life more. “I don’t take anything for granted,” the 25-year-old notes.
Despite the life-altering accident, Miller continued with many of his favorite activities, including an appreciation for motorcycles.
In 2012 he attended the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. While there, he learned about a friend’s father, who runs an air ambulance company and, like Miller, is in a wheelchair.
“He wasn’t paralyzed his whole life either,” says Miller. “He became paralyzed in an airplane crash in the 1970s. When I heard he continued to fly, I knew I could do it. One of his pilots took me up in a Cessna 152 and after that I was hooked.”
Because he was injured while on duty, Miller was eligible for vocation rehabilitation paid for by the Veterans Administration.
Miller used his veterans benefits for flight training.
He got in touch with Jane Berg, who at the time was the chief instructor at Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa. The college has a Part 141 professional pilot program.
“It was less than two weeks before the fall term was set to begin,” Miller recalls.
According to Darren Graham, who now holds the title of chief flight instructor/aviation program director at the college, Miller’s education was a team effort.
Because Miller does not have the use of his legs — and therefore cannot control the rudders or brakes with them — it was necessary to find hand controls approved for aviation use. A search of the Internet proved there was a set approved by the FAA through a Supplemental Type Certificate, however, the controls were no longer being manufactured.
According to Graham, Bill Kyle, an aviation expert in Charles City, Iowa, was able to reverse engineer the controls from the still-valid STC. The VA paid for the hand controls.
“That took about three to four months to make them,” says Miller, but rather than waiting to begin his flight training he decided to begin training in the school’s Redbird FMX flight simulator configured as a Cessna 172.
The benefit of the Redbird, which is a motion simulator, is that the instructor has the ability to stop the “aircraft” in mid-flight by pressing the pause button, and if there is a challenge, the aircraft can be reset. This allows student pilots to practice maneuvers such as landings, stalls and turns, over and over again without having to take the time to re-enter the pattern or climb to a particular altitude.
With assistance, Miller was able to climb into the Redbird to do the training.
“He logged about 18 hours in the Redbird,” says Graham. “He worked through the Jeppesen Private Pilot syllabus up through lesson six, which includes slips to a landing, go-arounds, crosswind takeoffs, approach and landings. We were getting Scott what he wanted and he was getting more proficient.”
Although the FARs only allow 2.5 hours of his time in the sim to count toward the 35 hours he needed to qualify for his Private Pilot ticket through the Part 141 program, Miller says he benefited greatly from the experience in the Redbird.
“I was able to learn the maneuvers and get proficient,” he says. “We did everything in the Redbird: We did the instrument flight, we did the night flight, everything. So much so, that when I finally got into the airplane, everything was a no-brainer.”
In the meantime, Miller applied for his aviation medical certificate. Ironically, the fact he is in a wheelchair was not an issue — it was a history of kidney stones that delayed the issuance of the certificate.
“They install with a few bolts,” Miller explains. “They hook onto the pedals so there is a stick that comes up. By moving the stick left and right, I can control the rudders. When I push the stick up it applies the brakes.”
Once he had the controls, Miller moved out of the Redbird and into the Cessna. He has a wheelchair that he breaks down and carries with him during flights away from the airport. For local flights he leaves his wheelchair on the ground. He does require some assistance with the preflight inspection as he cannot climb up on the wing to check the fuel or reach the oil filler neck in the engine from his chair.
Here communication was key, says Miller.
“Because of the hand controls, I have to handle the controls a little differently and I explained to the FAA examiner what I was doing and how I was doing it so he would know exactly what to expect,” Miller explains.”I was able to do my SODA (Statement Of Demonstrated Ability) ride and checkride all at once. It took about an hour and a half.”
Miller passed his checkride Nov. 25.
Graham notes that Miller was an inspiration to the students, as well as staff, at the college.
“Working with Scott has been a joy. He always has a good attitude about him. He reminded us that a lot of us take things for granted and we shouldn’t. We never hears Scott complain and he always did what he was told. He was an inspiration to a lot of the students.”
Now that he has his private certificate in his hand, Miller has started making plans for his aviation future. He’s thinking about making a few cross-countries. He plans to attend the annual Antique Aircraft Fly-In at Blakesburg, Iowa, and is also toying with the idea of heading to AirVenture one day.
There’s also some thought being given to buying an airplane of his own. “I’m thinking about a low-wing Piper model,” he says.