By Henry M. Holden
Able Flight, in Atlanta, Ga., provides flight-training scholarships to people with a variety of disabilities. On May 7, Jet Aviation, one of Able Flight’s original corporate sponsors, provided its space at Teterboro Airport (TEB) for the 2008 scholarship presentations.
Founded in June 2006 by Charles Stites, Able Flight’s mission is to offer flight training to the disabled, providing them a unique way to challenge themselves and the opportunity to gain greater self-confidence and self-reliance. The national program is the only one of its kind in the United States.
Robert Seidel, senior vice president and general manager of Jet Aviation, has been involved with Able Flight since its inception.
“When I met Charles, and he explained what Able Flight was about, it took me about 30 seconds to decide to become involved in the program,” said Seidel. “There are two types of people in this world, in my opinion. There are people who watch things happen, and there are people who make things happen; Charles in clearly in the latter category.”
Stites has been an editor, freelance writer, photographer and a contributor to U.S. and European aviation publications.
“While he was researching a program for flight-training disabled people in the U.K., he decided to compare it to programs that existed in the United States,” Seidel said. “He discovered that no one in the United States was running such a program. So Charles decided that if there was going to be a program in the United States, it was up to him to start it. He went to the IRS for his not-for-profit certificate and got it in record time, three weeks, because the IRS also thought it was a great idea. It’s an easy thing to say you believe in something, but it’s another to take action. Charles believed in this and turned it into a reality.”
Able Flight scholarship applicants participate in a rigorous process, which includes an initial review by Able Flight staff. Selected candidates participate in a personal interview with Stites. Finalists then receive a review by the scholarship selection committee.
Sean O’Donnell was a high school senior when he became paralyzed following a motorcycle accident. A month after his accident, he told his dad he was leaving rehab and going back to school to get his diploma. Then he went on to graduate from Villanova University. Fourteen years later, he’s the head of Villanova’s Distance Learning Masters program.
“A year ago, I interviewed Sean for the scholarship,” said Stites. “We accepted him, and he became our second scholarship winner to earn a pilot’s license. He’s a perfect example of what Able Flight can do. He learned to fly in the Sky Arrow 600 sport aircraft and was so moved by the experience, he decided to buy one. Within five days of getting his license, he was negotiating the purchase of a Sky Arrow airplane. Buying the plane would be a great story in itself, but it goes far beyond that. Sean opened his flight school, Philly Sport Pilot, at historic Wings Field (KLOM), just a few minutes north of Philadelphia.”
Philly Sport pilot specializes in disabled pilot and sport pilot training.
“O’Donnell’s dream of flying began well before his motorcycle accident,” Stites said. “But the dream was put on hold until he learned of Able Flight’s scholarship program and the availability of the Italian-made Sky Arrow 600 LSA, an airplane that can be ordered with factory-installed controls that enable it to be flown entirely by hand.”
O’Donnell’s scholarship presented him with a responsibility.
“I truly felt that the Able Flight scholarship was a fantastic gift,” said O’Donnell. “But I also felt that I was charged with a duty to work as hard as I can to pass this gift on to others. The best way I can do that is to provide flying resources for people with disabilities in the Northeast.”
His first hope is to provide safe quality training for all those who can achieve it.
“I don’t want to see someone who is completely capable of being a good pilot, like I was, stopped by a mobility issue, which we are smart enough to get around,” he said. “My second hope is to see Able Flight thrive and help provide it with the resources needed to accomplish its mission. It’s a team effort and something I believe in.”
Stites sees O’Donnell “paying it forward.”
“Sean’s decision to create his own flight school is an outstanding example,” said Stites. “He’s created a second training location where we can send Able Flight scholarship winners like Tyler Ryan, another young man paralyzed in a motorcycle accident.”
Stites respects O’Donnell’s attitude.
“Sean’s been very successful in his life, never allowing personal challenges to stand in the way of his many achievements,” Stites said. “I was impressed with him, so he’s now on the advisory board of Able Flight.”
Determination is the key
Ryan and O’Donnell’s stories are separated by about 13 years, but are remarkably similar. At the time Ryan suffered his paralyzing spinal cord injury, he was also a high school senior planning to pursue a career in aviation. With determination, Ryan graduated with his class and just completed his freshman year in college. In a few weeks, he’ll go to O’Donnell’s school and work towards his sports pilot license.
Ryan Kelly, a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves, recently became the first scholarship student to train at Philly Sport Pilot. Kelly had planned to become a helicopter pilot before an improvised explosive device took his right leg at the knee in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2003. After receiving a Bronze Star with Valor device, he was facing a serious life change and doubts about his future.
During rehab, he met some pilots who offered possibilities. He began chasing his dream after learning it was possible to qualify for civilian helicopter training even with a prosthetic leg. He attended Embry-Riddle University in Arizona, graduated cum laude, became a helicopter pilot and then became a helicopter flight instructor. He now has close to 1,000 flight hours. When Kelly earned an Able Flight scholarship, he decided to become a CFI in light-sport aircraft.
“I had a lot of doubts about what life was going to be like after my injury,” he said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to do routine daily tasks. Then my horizon broadened when I discovered I could still fly with my injury. Aviation is a great equalizer; I may not be able to run as fast as the next person, but when I get in that airplane, I can fly and land it as well as anybody else. That, to me, is what’s so powerful about this program. I want to get involved and help give that experience to more people with disabilities.”
Able Flight scholarships help the disabled set and achieve their goals.
“I consider these men to be overachievers,” said Stites. “They haven’t allowed physical disabilities to prevent them from setting and achieving some impressive goals and to do things that many of us will never get to do, such as pilot aircraft. Many people are fully capable of doing that, but these young men took the initiative, despite their disabilities, and made things happen.”
The scholarship program is set up to be as inclusive as possible, in awarding flight-training opportunities. Able Flight has awarded 16 scholarships, with 10 going to people with spinal cord injuries, three to disabled women and three to wounded veterans. The organization plans to award up to a third of all scholarships to wounded veterans. The average scholarship award is $7,000 and fully covers all flight and ground school training, testing, travel and lodging as required.
Students must complete ground school requirements before attending one of several accredited flight training schools.
“They have to be prepared,” said Stites. “We provide the King Schools’ Sport Pilot Knowledge course (“ground school”). After they pass the ground school test, they begin flight training. The school is four to five weeks long, and they get one or two hours of flight training every day, weather permitting. The FAA requires 20 hours to earn the LSA license. We require 25 to 30 hours. We want them to be perfectly comfortable flying the aircraft before they take their check ride.”
For more information, visit [http://www.ableflight.org].