A Lifetime of Convincing Culminates in Historic Check Ride

Doing something people aren’t used to seeing sometimes forces you to explain yourself.

It’s not every day you get to set a precedent. Especially with an organization like the FAA. When designated pilot examiner Terry Brandt agreed to do my check ride, the stage was set to establish whether people without arms could fly or not.

I was about 35 hours into my training when I soloed, but I didn’t take my check ride until I had logged about 80 hours.

A Lifetime of Convincing

One of the hardest realities of living with a disability is that a theme begins to emerge that you’re always having to change someone’s mind just to live your life. When I order takeout and show up at the restaurant, I ask them to put the handles of the bag on my shoulder. It’s how I carry a lot of things. But the staff (at least the first time) looks at me like they can’t believe this is going to work. Sometimes I have to spend a few extra moments explaining, coaxing, and over assuring them before I finally get to leave with my food. 

Even when I went to get my driver’s license, I had the rug pulled out from under me because one person thought they knew better. When I took my driver’s test, I did it in an unmodified Volvo. I was 17 at the time—a year late and over prepared (that is a whole other disability issue I won’t get into here). 

One of the hardest realities of living with a disability is that a theme begins to emerge that you’re always having to change someone’s mind just to live your life.

I took the initial test and passed. But only one week later, I received a letter in the mail that said my license had been suspended. As it turns out, a concerned citizen had convinced the Arizona Motor Vehicle Division that it was unsafe for me to drive without special modifications. Someone who thought they knew my abilities better than me. I was going to have to change someone’s mind for the hundredth time in my life. This wasn’t something new, but it is always frustrating.

It took another few months before a grant from Arizona Vocational Rehabilitation paid for the $10,000 modifications to my car. This time, I went to the MVD office where truck drivers take their test. I took the test with the modifications and the examiner signed me off. It was then that I asked if I could do the test again, but this time without the modifications and he agreed.

Guess which test I scored better on? The examiner reinstated my license without the need for modifications.

So when it came time for my check ride, I was worried I would have to jump through similar hoops to get my sport pilot certificate. Though, without much trouble, Terry drove in from out of town for my check ride. He knew the situation going in and I could tell he felt prepared.

Jessica checking the oil in preflight. Courtesy: Jessica Cox

The Check Ride

Terry and I started my oral exam alone in one of the hangars. My family and friends who came with me had to wait outside. We didn’t get very far into the exam before I asked if it would be all right if I sat on the floor. It was easier for me as I was pointing to parts of the sectional with my toes. I remember Terry smiled and said he liked to sit on the floor sometimes, too. We finished the three-hour oral exam still sitting on the floor of that hangar. It was nice to see someone who could decide the future of my aviation privileges meet me on my level. 

By the time we finished, I was mentally exhausted and the winds had picked up. San Manuel Ray Blair Airport (E77) has only one runway, so we decided to call it a day and meet up the following morning for the flight portion of my check ride.

I felt good going home that day, but I worried about what was next. It felt like forever and yet no time at all when we were back at the airport. I completed the preflight and, thankfully, Parrish had fueled up the Ercoupe the day before. We assessed the winds, which were not completely calm but better than the day before, and we decided we could fly.

Terry and I got seated in the Ercoupe and had a brief chat before I began the engine start checklist. He outlined his expectations, and I remember him explaining that if I could show that I could safely fly the airplane, he would sign me off. He didn’t care if I did it with my feet or my nose, just so long as I could do it safely.

I did just that. 

Jessica shows off her Guinness World Record medal that she earned for becoming the first person without arms ever licensed to fly an airplane with just their feet. Courtesy: Jessica Cox

On my first landing, I had to land within a certain distance of the 1,000-foot marker. I stabilized my descent, crossed the threshold on speed, flared at just the right height and set the main tires within inches of my target. Or at least it felt like inches. I can still hear Terry’s voice say, “It doesn’t get any better than that.”

A few more landings later, I was the first person without arms ever licensed to fly an airplane with just their feet. Terry kept an open mind and I thank him for that. Together we set the precedent. 

It’s been 13 years since then and aviation continues to be a big part of my life. In 2010, I received a Guinness World Record for the achievement. 

Sadly, in 2018, Terry passed away and he is missed by many in the aviation community. Thank you to everyone who helped along my journey to becoming a pilot!

I look forward to sharing more stories with you. If you have suggestions for article topics or questions you’d like me to answer, send me an email at thearmlesspilot@gmail.com or visit www.JessicaCox.com.

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