Face it, we’ve all been there. We develop a dream to fly through DNA passed down our family tree, or we took a memorable flight as a child, and that spark was lit. Whatever it was that was the genesis that forged our path to the sky, we all faced challenges along the way that could at times seem impossible to overcome. Some of us made it and became pilots, while others “washed out,” and our aviation dream never materialized.
Those challenges that impeded our progress toward the coveted pilot’s certificate might have seemed impenetrable, but when we look at what sport pilot Justin Falls of Lincolnton, North Carolina, has done to overcome his challenges in order to fly, just about anything we faced was, by comparison, absolutely nothing.
Falls was 18 years old when he broke his neck after falling off a fire escape, resulting in a spinal cord injury between his fourth and fifth vertebrae. Technically, he says this meant he was a quadriplegic due to motor and sensory deficits in all four of his extremities. Falls explains that the accident could have resulted in much more severe paralysis if his spine had been completely severed.
Today, he can move the fingers in his left hand, but his right hand is paralyzed, as well as his right triceps muscles and both his legs. A pharmacist at a hospital, Falls has used a wheelchair to get around for the past 15 years and drives a car with hand controls.
On the surface, this sort of major disability would appear to be a challenge that is too much to overcome for someone who wants to fly general aviation airplanes. But Falls had been interested in flying since he was very young, and he figured that if he could drive a car with only his hands, maybe he could fly airplanes as well.
“I lived about [a] half-mile from my local non-towered airport in Gastonia for most of my life,” Falls said, “and I especially enjoyed going to their airshows. I felt that aviation was a bit out-of-reach due to the expense, then after my injury, it was even further away. Since my car has hand controls, then I thought it should be possible to adapt a plane’s controls as well. Sure enough, there had been many people with disabilities like myself who have learned to fly in adapted planes. After I graduated from pharmacy school, one of the guys I played wheelchair rugby with was going to start training with Able Flight the next summer, and he is also quadriplegic. So I followed his progress and applied for an Able Flight scholarship about the same time I was applying for jobs as a new pharmacist.”
Flight Training for Student Pilots With Disabilities
Falls learned to fly through a scholarship provided by Able Flight, a non-profit organization that provides flight training and aviation career scholarships for people with disabilities. “Able Flight is funded by generous donors, philanthropists, and companies like Shell Aviation, Lockheed Martin, Tempest Aero Group, and many others,” Falls said. “I was able to learn to fly at no cost in the Sky Arrow, an Italian LSA. It is one of the few aircraft with a certified hand control design that can be flown using only your hands. The main limitation of the Sky Arrow is that it’s very difficult to transfer into it from a wheelchair, and it sits pilot and passenger tandem, with no extra room to stow a wheelchair.”
An Airplane of His Own
“I learned of Zenith when I was rolling around Oshkosh looking at all the different LSA kitplanes after I got my wings from the Able Flight awards ceremony,” Falls explains. “Sebastien, the owner of Zenith Aircraft, has been a supporter of Able Flight, and he is very inspired by their mission. I managed to talk him into selling me his CH 750 STOL and helping to design hand controls for it from scratch! His son Calvin was the lead designer, and the goal was to create a hand control setup for the Zenith that could also be used to train future Able Flight students.”
Falls added that the main reason he selected this make/model was that the high-wing design made it easier to transfer from a wheelchair into the cockpit and that the manufacturer was willing to help him with designing hand controls to fit his needs.
How Falls Flies His Zenith
The STOL CH 750 Falls flies has been modified so that the rudder, throttle, brakes, and push-to-talk are controlled from the left seat using a stick between his legs. Pushing forward on the rudder stick is right rudder, pulling back is left rudder.
The electronic hat switch at the top of the stick is connected to a servo motor that controls the throttle. In the event of an electrical failure, he can still use the manual throttle on the panel as a backup.
“The hand brake is like a motorcycle brake that replaces the toe brakes used during taxiing. I use my right hand to control the yoke in the center of the plane, and this controls the pitch and roll of the aircraft. It takes a lot of coordination and muscle memory to use these controls, but they are fairly intuitive once you’ve been doing it for a while,” Falls said.
Falls is planning a solo cross-country flight from the East Coast to the West Coast soon, and once completed, he’ll be the first quadriplegic to fly from the Atlantic to the Pacific solo. He plans to do it in his current airplane and will be having an autopilot installed to make the trip a bit easier. He, however, has even loftier goals.
“I would love to someday become the first quadriplegic to fly solo around the world, but that will require me to get my private pilot certificate,” Falls said. “I have thought about possibly modifying my plane with an extra fuel tank to make the journey around the world, if Zenith would be interested in helping to modify the plane. But ideally, it would be easier if I could cruise two to three times faster than I currently can. I sincerely hope that things will change to make it easier for people like me to fly bigger, faster aircraft. Getting a third-class medical will be an extra challenge, and if I fail, I would potentially lose my sport pilot privileges. There are so many limitations with LSAs that make it difficult to find planes that can accommodate a wheelchair.”
He would also like to become the first quadriplegic to go to space and asked if anyone has connections to Richard Branson, Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos. “Tell them I need a ride!” Falls said.
For Justin Falls, flying gives him a sense of satisfaction, unlike any other activity he has done.
“When I take off from the runway, I am no longer defined by anything else other than as a pilot. I have instant freedom to see the world from a vantage point that so few people get to enjoy, and I feel so privileged and lucky to be able to do it. And I rarely ever use the word ‘lucky’ to describe myself, because living with paralysis is hard, and I often feel very unlucky. But with flying, it’s different. I really am lucky to live in a time when humans can fly,” he said.
Videos and other content about Falls flying with his disability can be found on his social media channels by searching: “WheelieGoodPilot.” His Youtube channel, in particular, has videos showing exactly how Falls’ STOL Zenith CH 750 has been modified and how he flies it with hand controls.