Flying Over Adversity: Early Setbacks Test Mettle

Once Jessica Cox decided she wanted to fly, she discovered a set of difficult obstacles she needed to overcome.

Learning how to fly is really enjoyable, but it will challenge you physically, mentally, and especially emotionally. When I started my flight training, I was determined to overcome my fear. But it takes a bit more than just courage to face your fears.

In a previous column, I mentioned how the first time I touched the controls of an airplane was one of the scariest things I had ever done. But it was also the moment I caught “the bug.”

I’m talking about that sudden inspiration-turned-compulsion to learn how to fly. Most pilots catch the bug on their first discovery flight, like love at first sight—or flight. If you haven’t caught the bug, I highly recommend you book a session with your local flight school as soon as possible!

It was 2005 when I took that flight to Mexico in a Cessna 172 and then decided to become a pilot. There were so many questions about who, what, when, where, and how. There had never been a person without arms become a certificated pilot.

Figuring out what I would fly became the priority. A short time after the flight to Mexico, I finally went flying with Wright Flight, the nonprofit that first offered to take me on a small airplane flight. Luckily, Wright Flight is big on teaching—not just providing an experience—so I learned a little bit in the process.

The biggest thing I learned was that most standard airplanes wouldn’t work for me to fly solo.

I started asking around to find airplanes that weren’t standard. It isn’t easy to be the first at something, and you need to have patience and persistence in abundance.

Weeks or months went by, and it would have been easy to give up after a couple of tries. Then, more than five months after the flight to Mexico, someone brought me a copy of a magazine. On the cover was the picture of an Ercoupe with the text next to it saying, “A Classic Light Sport for Everyone.”

Ercoupes are some of the most unique airplanes in general aviation. The goal of the design was to stop stall/spin accidents. Fred Weick designed it with one simplistic choice: interconnect the rudder and the ailerons. There’s a yoke at each seat, a throttle quadrant in the middle on the panel, a single brake pedal on the floor, and no rudder pedals.

Finally, this was a design I could work with.

Finding a Teacher

I called the editor of the magazine to get in touch with the pilot of the Ercoupe. Soon after that, I was talking with Glen Davis. He was a flight instructor and had recently taught a man who had survived polio with limited use of his legs.

I asked Glen if he would be willing to teach me how to fly, and he invited me out to Florida to train. It wasn’t until the end of the call that I told him I didn’t have arms.

Sorry, Glen, but now I know it wouldn’t have mattered to you at all.

It was Thanksgiving before I made it to Florida, more than a year after I decided to become a pilot. This was a tough time for my family and me. My mom had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and she was scheduled to have lung surgery during the same week Glen was available. I was still at the start of my speaking career and working part time as an administrative assistant at my local church office. I talked to my mom about skipping flight training so I could help take care of her—she told me to instead pursue the opportunity because it might never come again.

I had made it a year into this dream of flying, but I had not actually faced my fear of flying. I remember feeling overwhelmed on those first flights with Glen. When it was finally time to put foot to yoke, I began to question if I could do it. I was terrified of the thought of flying an airplane by myself in the future.

The training was hard, too. I struggled with figuring out how to buckle the four-point harness. I struggled with almost everything. Fred made the Ercoupe as simple as possible, but he had not designed it to be flown with feet. Eventually, I told Glen to leave me alone in the Ercoupe, and I wasn’t going to get out of that airplane until I figured out that harness. Forty-five minutes later, Glen came back, and I was sitting there securely buckled in the left seat. Every small victory like that got me closer to my dream.

After a week of training, I was starting to feel better, but there was still a lot to learn and practice. We had decided that I would pursue a sport pilot certificate rather than the one for a private pilot. The significant difference is that a sport pilot doesn’t have to pass a medical evaluation. Your driver’s license acts as your medical, and I had one. The catch was that Glen’s Ercoupe was a 415-E, and only the 415-C model Ercoupes qualified as light sport aircraft.

I flew back to Tucson with a mix of optimism and terror. Both Glen and I began looking for a 415-C model Ercoupe that I could train in. After more than a year of pursuing this dream, it was getting hard not to give up. All I had to do was stop looking, and I would never have to deal with one more obstacle, one more little thing standing in my way. It’s easy to give up trying to do what some people say is impossible.

But I didn’t give up, and now I have this story to tell.

NEXT TIME: Finding that right airplane and finally taking my solo flight. As they say, something always goes wrong on your solo flight!

Born without arms, Jessica Cox is the first and only certificated 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 at or visit her website.


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