The Malone Column
Disability needn't stop people flying but try it without arms...
As an aviation journalist I’ve been privileged to meet many great pilots – men and women who have made history, set fine records, flown to the Moon, accomplished exceptional feats of bravery and skill; all are in my personal pantheon of heroes. But no pilot has ever inspired me more than Jessica Cox.
Jessica is 35 years old and, although she has only 200 hours total time, she is recognised as a Guinness world record holder because she was born without arms, and she flies an unmodified aircraft solo, with her feet. If you want to understand what a colossal achievement that is, try living without your arms for just a few minutes. I’d starve to death before I got out of the door. But Jessica absolutely refuses to give in to any suggestion that she has limits. She is a surfer and a scuba diver, a black belt (and Arizona state champion) at taekwondo, she and her husband Patrick live in an unmodified house, she drives an unmodified car, and she flies an unmodified aeroplane.
She travels the world as a motivational speaker, encouraging those who find life difficult−however many limbs they have−to achieve their full potential. Her themes are unfashionable: “We are in a culture that seeks out negativity, a culture that thrives on the victim mentality, a culture that insists the glass is half empty,” she says. “I’ve never felt limited− why should I have limitations placed upon me?
“Think about the last time you said the words ‘I can’t’. When we say ‘I can’t’, we set ourselves up for failure. I have banished the words ‘I can’t’ from my vocabulary.”
Her listeners react with awe. For a woman without arms to do the things that four-limbed people do is seen as worthy and commendable−but here’s a girl who does something most four-limbed people cannot do, and that really gets their attention. If she can do that, what’s your excuse?
There isn’t enough room here to get into details of Jessica’s extraordinary life, but there’s heaps of stuff online. You can watch videos of her doing everything from putting in her contact lenses with her toes to flying a plane with her feet, and you can get her book Disarm Your
Limits from www.jessicacox.com, along with an inspirational DVD they made about her called Right Footed. I just wanted to yak with her about flying, and Jessica, who has granted audiences to everyone from Obama to the Pope, agreed to receive me in a Starbucks near the Pima Air and Space Museum (go!) in her home town of Tucson, Arizona. Over coffee, we talked pilot stuff. Her primary problem is the one we all face−she’s so busy she never gets enough time to fly.
It’s a dream she had from her earliest days. “I used to wish I could fly like Superwoman, swoop down on the playground and pick up a friend for a trip across the sky. But I was also frightened of flying, partly I think because if you have no arms you’re very conscious of contact with the ground−you don’t want to trip up. Even now, when I put my feet up on the controls I have a slight feeling of instability, of lack of grounding. But you can’t let it get in your way.”
Nothing gets in Jessica Cox’s way. She first touched the controls of a small Cessna on a return flight from a speaking engagement in Mexico and was later given a few flying lessons. It was clear that flying an unmodified Cessna was work for a four-limbed person, but she had the bug and she had to find a way. In 2006 she picked up a copy of AOPA Pilot magazine with an Ercoupe on the cover. This is the 1930s design with no pedals− ailerons and rudder are linked−and it offered her an opening. Jessica contacted the owner and travelled to Florida to fly his plane. But that was just the first obstacle. She had to go for an LSA licence, where the medical requirement is the same as for a driving licence, but only certain Ercoupes meet the LSA weight limit−she needed to find a 415C/D. Not only that, but it had to have a vernier throttle that was a tad lower on the panel than the Florida model−jessica flies with her right foot on the yoke, big toe on the PTT, left leg under her calf with toes on the throttle. If the throttle’s too high, her right leg gets in the way.
Years of searching yielded nothing. But one day, when she was disconsolately leaving a fly-in having drawn another blank, her pipe-smoking father fell into conversation with another pipe-smoker who, it turned out, had a friend who owned a 1946 415C, was an instructor, and flew from San Manuel airfield, only a few miles from Tucson. And the throttle was well-placed, too. Game on.
As an instructor, this chap, Parrish Traweek, gave no quarter−jessica had to achieve the same standard as any student. She does everything on the walkround; fuel drain, oil check, refuel, with her feet. She had a problem with the four-point harness but worked out she could buckle it, then loosen it, slide down into the harness and tighten the straps. When the time came for her to go solo Jessica invited her family and friends to watch, but Parrish chased them all away and cancelled the detail−no distractions allowed. She went solo next day, without the gallery. And in 2011, she got her licence. She flies when she can. Long flights are difficult because the seating position for controlling an aircraft with your feet is not notably relaxed; it may indeed become more onerous as she gets older and becomes less supple. That’s for the future. Today Jessica gets the same joy out of flying that we all do, but she makes better use of it. Her motivational speaking draws on aviation analogies−lift and weight, thrust and drag, the balance you need to be successful in your life. I came away thinking−hoping−that some of Jessica’s positive energy had rubbed off on me. Next time I feel a bout of self-pity coming on, in the air or on the ground, I have a role model to snap me out of it. I’m planning to disarm my limits.
Jessica was born without arms and flies an unmodified aircraft solo, with her feet