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 ...
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