THE MAN WHO WILLED HIM­SELF TO FLY

When an ac­ci­dent ren­dered him nearly im­mo­bile, one man learned the mean­ing of true grit. Against all odds, he be­came ...

Reader's Digest - - Contents - FROM THE JACK FINCHER

He had to crawl into the cock­pit. But he wasn’t go­ing to let that stop him from be­com­ing a pi­lot.

PAT PAT­TER­SON, A PI­LOT FOR 25 YEARS, had never met any­one like the jut-jawed young man in the wheel­chair who faced him at the Med­ford Ore­gon, air­port on Jul 28 1976 Mike Henderson, a quad­ri­plegic, wanted fly­ing lessons. Pat­ter­son's eyes flick­ered over Henderson's limbs. His legs could never op­er­ate the rud­der ped­als. How was he to ma­neu­ver over a ton of air­plane? Henderson's hands wor­ried the in­struc­tor most—his fin­gers were all but in­ert.

It was im­pos­si­ble, Pat­ter­son thought. Then what stopped him from say­ing so? Maybe it was the young man’s ob­vi­ous de­ter­mi­na­tion, his look of ur­gent de­sire.

Some­thing inside the bluff and blocky flight in­struc­tor stirred in re­sponse. “Per­haps I can teach you,” he said. “But un­der Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Reg­u­la­tions, you have to be able to get in and out by your­self.” He nod­ded to­ward his sin­gleengine trainer. “I’m go­ing to get a cup of cof­fee. If you’re in by the time I get back, we’ll start.”

Mike Henderson had gone up for a plane ride three weeks be­fore. Car­ried aboard and taken aloft, he had thought, Hey, I can do this. He cer­tainly had the time for lessons and, with a full dis­abil­ity pen­sion, the money. His first con­cern was whether he had the abil­ity to han­dle the con­trols. He now re­al­ized, how­ever, that get­ting into the air­craft by him­self might be as tough as fly­ing it. Still, Henderson had grown used to meet­ing stiff chal­lenges. As a 22 year-old Coast Guards­man eight years be­fore, he had fallen off a dock and landed on a float­ing log, smash­ing his fifth and sixth ver­te­brae. Doc­tors said that he would prob­a­bly' never walk again. Al­though the sen­sa­tion of touch in his lower trunk and limbs would re­turn, he was com­pletely par­a­lyzed from the ch­est down and had lit­tle move­ment left in his hands and arms.

Later, a neu­ro­sur­geon bluntly told him that he would never be able to live hour to hour with­out some­body help­ing him. For rea­sons he has never quite fath­omed, Henderson got an­gry.

“Here was this doc­tor telling me how it was go­ing to be,” he says. “But no one was go­ing to limit my free­dom to try.”

Af­ter weeks of phys­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, dur­ing which, among other things, he spent end­less hours forcing his fin­gers to pluck mar­bles out of

“When I saw him go through that much pain, I knew noth­ing could stop him.”

one pie plate and put them in an­other, I lender­son went home to his par­ents. De­ter­mined to fend for him­self, he learned to drive. Be­fore long, he met Ruth Tanner, and af­ter a brief courtship, they were mar­ried. Even­tu­ally he ac­com­plished such feats as build­ing and rac­ing a high-speed drag­ster and float­ing down the Colorado River in an in­ner tube.

But Henderson’s re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion had barely pre­pared him for the chal­lenge of a Piper Cherokee, its humped cabin and broad, low wing daz­zling in the morn­ing sun. An­chor­ing his wheel­chair be­side the plane, he put one hand on the wing’s trail­ing edge and, with the other hand on the arm­rest of his chair, pro­pelled him­self up­ward as far as he could go. Then he rolled to face the fuse­lage and, dig­ging sharply with his right el­bow, be­gan inch­ing his dead weight to­ward the cock­pit. In the flight shack, Pat Pat­ter­son watched in dis­be­lief. “He grov­eled his way up that wing!” he says. “That’s the only word for it. It took him 45 min­utes. When I went out, he was sit­ting in the pi­lot’s seat, blood from his chewed el­bow all over the place. When I saw him go through that much pain, I knew noth­ing could stop him.”

Noth­ing, per­haps, but a fed­eral agency em­pow­ered to en­sure that those who fly are qual­i­fied to do so.

Mike Henderson pre­par­ing to climb into the cock­pit of his Piper Cherokee in Med­ford, Ore­gon

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