Flying Over Adversity: Aspiring to Be a Pilot

Armless pilot Jessica Cox shares how fear shaped her early flying days in the debut of her monthly column.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: I was born without arms. I live my life by using my feet as my hands, and that’s precisely how I fly my Ercoupe. But I’m just one person with a disability who’s flown or aspired to be a pilot.

Using my feet is natural to me. What held me back when I started flying is something common to all of us: fear.

From The Beginning

My parents were excited about my birth. I was their second child, and my mom was happy about having a daughter to follow my brother. My mother was a nurse, so she was cautious with her pregnancy—she didn’t even take one aspirin tablet because she wanted to make sure nothing harmed me in the womb.

When the doctor in the delivery room announced, “She’s missing arms,” my mother asked, “One or both?”

“Both,” the doctor said. My mother was inconsolable after that. She grew up in the Philippines at a time in which a disability was a sentence to a life at home and being a burden on the family. It remains a sad reality in many areas around the world.

But my family adapted to my condition well, albeit not without difficulty. I was blissfully unaware.

Within a few months, my “normal” began to emerge. My mother took advantage of the freedom and opportunity we had living in Arizona to make my life as regular as she could. I grew up in a small, primarily military town in southern Arizona. I attended a regular school. I did almost all the activities most kids try at least once. Eventually, I discovered Taekwondo and earned my first black belt.

An Early Fear of Flights

My mother wanted me and my siblings to know our heritage, so we made several trips to the Philippines growing up. I can’t remember ever being at ease on those long flights. As I got a little older, I would start to pray every time I boarded an airplane. Eventually, I came to realize my fear wasn’t about flying or not being in control, or claustrophobia, or heights. I was afraid of losing contact with the ground.

If you have ever seen me speak onstage, you will notice I always wear pants. Pants are helpful for several reasons, including covering up the scar tissue on my knees. I never had the hands to catch myself when I fell, and it was a long time until I discovered gymnastics and how to turn a fall into a roll. I have naturally developed better balance than average. Still, I have always needed solid, stable ground to stand on without arms to counterbalance me. To me, this was the root of my fear.

Fast forward to the summer after I earned my bachelor’s in psychology. One of the Tucson Rotary clubs invited me to speak for a meeting. I delivered the speech while wearing my Taekwondo uniform and my second black belt in Taekwondo. My dad had driven me to the event and was standing beside me when retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot Robin Stoddard approached me.

Jessica Cox in an airplane
Flying the Ercoupe came only after Cox conquered her fear of leaving solid ground. Courtesy Jessica Cox

Robin offered to take me on a flight through Wright Flight, a nonprofit he founded years before. There was an awkward moment because I didn’t want to just say, “No.” My dad, however, took the liberty to fill that moment of silence with, “She would love to!”

I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The speech I had just finished delivering was all about can-do spirit. Now I was committed to something I was afraid of doing. I had to be polite about the invitation, but at the same time, I had never been in a small airplane before. I didn’t think I would enjoy it, but some piece of me wanted to try at least a little bit.

Before I could even go on that flight, I was invited to speak for the Flying Samaritans International Annual Conference. They wanted one of their pilots to fly me down from Tucson to Guaymas, Mexico. It would be about two hours each way.

Two hours in a small airplane was a lot to ask, in my mind. I had been psyching myself up for the 30- to 45-minute flight with Wright Flight that would just stay around the Tucson area. Now, I would be flying cross-country in a Cessna 172 for two hours, and internationally, too. Whether I liked it or hated it, I would have to do it again after the weekend.

But this was also my first international invitation as a speaker, which is a significant milestone. I didn’t want to say “No,” and it was a good thing I didn’t.

Flying Past Fear

The day came, and I climbed into the back seat. The whole time leading up to takeoff I was holding my breath. I was holding back my anxiety with prayers. My nerves made me feel like I was going to jump out of my skin.

Then, as we took off, I realized we were at the point of no return, which in a way, was a relief. As we finished our climb, I remember feeling like this was not as big a deal as I made it out to be. I was finally breathing, and we finished the uneventful flight to Mexico.

On the way back, the pilot let me sit in the right front seat. He asked me if I wanted to try putting my foot on the controls. As I put my foot on the yoke and he let go, I had this moment of flying an airplane. I was the only one touching the controls.

That was the moment that changed everything.

It was empowering—probably the second-most empowering moment of my life.

The first? My solo flight. But that’s for my next article.

Born without arms, Jessica Cox is the first and only licensed armless pilot in aviation history. When she’s not flying a 1946 Ercoupe in Arizona, Jessica trains in Taekwondo, mentors children with limb differences, and travels the world as a keynote speaker. If you have questions, or suggestions for article topics, send Jessica an email or visit her website.

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