Being an Armless Pilot Opened an Amazing Door

Notoriety from an historic accomplishment gives this one-of-a-kind pilot an inspiring opportunity.

Becoming the first armless pilot in aviation history brought a lot of nice perks (like announcing it to the world on Ellen). 

Still, I am so grateful that my story did not end there. 

Most people focus on the fact that I did what many consider to be an impossible feat: physically controlling an airplane in flight without arms. The truth is that the accomplishment became something even more significant, something that I could never have imagined—it became my vehicle for impact.

Soon after the story of my certification broke, invitations came streaming in from all over the world. My small mining town of San Manuel, Arizona, started being visited by reporters from England, Brazil, and Japan. I clearly inspired the reporters, producers, and cameramen and women. Sometimes, though, that inspiration lacked confidence. I vividly remember getting ready to fly with a Russian reporter whose body was built like a football player. His big imposing frame trembled as he climbed into the Ercoupe cockpit with me. Never mind that I couldn’t move with him and the camera in the cockpit, so we never actually took off.

Those who did fly with me always climbed out of the cockpit with a renewed faith in human ability. 

Not every story came out accurately. As the center of the story, I took most of the heat for that. People’s involvement merged with others, and some disappeared from the story entirely. I was even called a liar. 

Did I mix up one or two details over the years? Certainly. However, I had no editorial control over most mistakes, but I received the blame anyway. Sadly, it soured some relationships that still have not healed to this day.

Those experiences make me glad that I regularly write for FLYING, to not only set the record straight but tell new stories about the impact of aviation.

Meeting with Senator Tom Harkin (R-Iowa) to discuss disability rights. [Courtesy: Jessica Cox]

A Door Opens to a New World

I was born with a disability in one of the most advanced countries in the world. I was able to go to a public school and be accommodated. I was able to attend a public university and get a degree. I was able to open my own business after college. I could buy my own car, get married, and start a family if I choose without being stigmatized. People who lived the opposite life experience began to read my story.

There are countries where babies born with disabilities are called a curse. Some countries warehouse people with disabilities in sickening conditions and never issue them birth certificates. Assaults on people with disabilities go unreported because they aren’t considered “people” by their government.

As more stories went out to Greece, the Philippines, South Korea, Kenya, Germany, Afghanistan, something exciting was developing. My new platform thrust me into the arena of international disability advocacy and the global civil rights struggle. A door to a new world opened for me, and I decided to step through it. 

The world of aviation created a unique opportunity. I could leverage the press attention of being the first armless pilot to try to move the needle on disability rights.

In 2013, domestic disability rights groups asked me to help boost U.S. involvement in international disability rights. They struggled to get meetings with decision-makers in the U.S. Senate. I can’t say I opened every Senate office door, but it was more than I expected. Usually, I had to carry the conversation in those meetings. I’ll be honest, though; I was much happier to open the door for someone more knowledgeable than me to argue our case.

I’ve also had the privilege to work with Humanity and Inclusion for almost a decade now. HI has projects worldwide, and I’ve visited their work in Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Nepal. I believe that sharing my story is making a difference. People who face overwhelming opposition because of a disability deserve to know that they, too, like me, have a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” I am deeply grateful to aviation and the opportunities (and obligations) it has given me.

To everyone who took part in my aviation journey, you have done so much more than you thought at first. You helped us take on a more extensive global challenge than one woman, one airplane, and one disability.

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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