For North Carolina pilot Justin Falls, flying an airplane represents a freedom denied him on the ground.
Falls, 28, overcame a devastating spinal cord injury as a student and has rebuilt his life to include completing college, earning a pharmacy degree and, most recently, passing his sport pilot check ride.
Falls, who suffered a broken neck in a college accident when he was 18, said, “When I first had my injury after falling off a fire escape I could barely move my right arm, and I didn’t have any sensation below my shoulders. The doctors said there was nothing else they could do.”
His initial reaction was despondency.
“I thought why didn’t you just let me die,” he said. “It was like my worst nightmare.”
“Essentially, most of my recovery was up to me, and my family was very supportive,” Falls continued. “I was on a ventilator at first, then began small rehabilitation steps like picking up light objects. After six weeks I still wasn’t able to take care of myself independently. My mom helped take care of me. If she hadn’t been there, I would’ve ended up in a nursing facility.”
Falls, from Gastonia, N.C., finished two separate degrees at Wingate University over the next eight years after the accident, including graduating pharmacy school in 2015. Along the way he began outdoor adventure pursuits.
“Adaptive sports allowed me to meet others with similar injuries,” he explained. “One of the guys I played quad rugby with finished the Able Flight program the year before me. I had always wanted to learn how to fly, so I applied.”
Able Flight, founded in 2006 by Charles Stites, is a North Carolina-based nonprofit organization best known for its aviation scholarships that enable people with disabilities to learn to fly.
Falls began working as a pharmacist at Frye Regional Medical Center in Hickory, N.C., in February 2016 and not long after that got a call from Stites offering him a Shell Aviation/Able Flight Wings scholarship. His supervisor at Frye let him take a six-week break from his new job for the Able flight program.
Falls did his sport pilot training at Purdue University.
“First, we had to do some online ground school studying,” he said. “Once we got there, I was in the air the second day. The plane we used is a tandem Sky Arrow light-sport aircraft, and it’s designed to be flown with your hands.”
“The control stick is on the right for the ailerons and elevator. The rudder and throttle are controlled on the left with a T-handle lever. Twisting the T-handle clockwise adds power and twisting counter-clockwise reduces power. You pull back on the T-handle for left rudder and push forward for right rudder. There are also separate sticks for the finger-controlled brakes to the right of the control stick.”
“My first solo in early June 2016 was a little nerve-wracking, but also exciting,” Falls continued. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so I had about 20 hours before soloing. Everybody was watching, but I ended up having really great landings.”He took his sport pilot check ride about three weeks after his solo.
“There’s no gimme or anything,” he said. “I had to fly it to the same standard as everyone. I was nervous, but felt ready for it. I was told if the examiner shook your hand at the end, you know you passed. Well, it took some time for us to get out of the plane, but then he shook my hand.”
Falls has not been able to fly much since he earned his license last summer. “There aren’t many planes around that have hand controls,” he said. “The closest Sky Arrow for rent is a four-hour drive from my house, so I’ve been saving up to get my own airplane.”
He would also like to earn his private pilot’s license, but will need to find a medical examiner to fly with him in order to get a third class medical.
“My ultimate dream in flying,” Falls said, “is to get some land and be able to land my plane in my own backyard. Flying gives me a feeling of freedom. I no longer feel paralyzed while in the air. I might not be able to walk or run, but I can fly.”