The Impossible Airplane Showcases Aviation Innovation

A team is modifying the gull-wing door of a Van’s RV-10 for improved disability access.

The automatic door mechanism for the RV-10. [Courtesy: Jessica Cox]

One of my favorite things about the Ercoupe is that I can fly it with the windows down—amid a beautiful sunset, the wind in my face, a calm Arizona sky—you get the picture. Getting inside an Ercoupe is not the easiest because you have to climb down into it and try not to bang your knees on the instrument panel, but not having a door has its perks. All I have to do is slide open the windows, climb in, and then slide them shut. And then, if I feel like it, I slide them down while in flight, and I have my very own convertible in the sky.

Yes, the Ercoupe cruises about 90 mph, so it feels more like a convertible speeding down a freeway. I have to ensure my hair is secured, so it doesn’t blow around and block my vision. If the pilot feels like it, they can stick an arm out the window to steer in one direction. I choose not to put my leg out because that would mean putting half my body out the window. What a sight that would make!

One of the challenges we faced with upgrading to the Impossible Airplane (a Van’s Aircraft  RV-10) was opening the gull-wing doors. Reaching the door handle from the outside is tough for me while precariously balancing on one leg on the wing. 

This is an excellent metaphor for disability access. The airplane may be modified for a pilot without arms, but what is the point if I can’t get in? The same goes for a restaurant with a disabled-accessible table available but also has steps leading up to the front door. Or a website that sells products for low vision or blind people but can’t be accessed by a screen reader. It’s not the disability that’s the issue; it is the way we design things.

So, my favorite question is, “How can we make this work?”

Building the impossible airplane is proving yet again that this project is bigger than one pilot, one airplane, and one team of builders and engineers. Last week, students from the Oregon Institute of Technology showcased their innovative ideas for The Impossible Airplane.

The complete system created by the students at Oregon Institute of Technology. [Courtesy: Jessica Cox]

Thanks to Amber Conord, Jake Baker, Race Ross, Chase Ahrens, and Ronald Collins (who also works at Van’s), they have found a way for me to easily open the airplane doors. The solution involves a safety switch and a button, very similar to how you would open a hatchback car by pressing a button. I am confident that I am the first of the many RV-10 owners who would enjoy this feature once it becomes available.

Thanks to the tremendous support from some great aviators and aviation companies, I’ll be bringing a demo automatic door to EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in late July. I also plan to bring a simulator of my pitch, roll, and yaw controls that I will let you try out. By the way, if you think you can fly better than me, I’ll let you test your skills and even give you a commemorative T-shirt to prove it! You can find us in the Homebuilders Hangar.

One might think that The Impossible Airplane is just about building a special airplane. As the project unfolds, it is proving to be so much more than that. As a disability advocate, one of my biggest goals is to get people to think differently about the world around them and how they perceive people with disabilities.

The Impossible Airplane project shows us that we don’t always have to settle for “just the way things are.” We must always leave room for the question, “How can we make things better, not just for us, but for all abilities?” I have been so humbled by the talent, creativity, and dedication of our student contributors. I have so much faith in the future, knowing that our younger generation has such a strong drive to improve the way things work. One button can change lives, indeed!

The Impossible Airplane is on track to be finished by 2025. While it started out as my dream, it has become our dream. It has become an example of how we can turn barriers into gateways when we work together. 

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.

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