Why Representation Matters

Just as a little girl would be inspired by seeing a female pilot, someone with a disability would be encouraged by seeing a pilot with limb differences in the cockpit.

Eric Gaffney, a United Airlines 737 pilot born missing one hand. [Image provided by: Jessica Cox]

For a long time, I avoided drawing attention to not having arms. People's shocked reaction was always unsettling and a reminder of my difference. It might be hard to believe, but I forget I do not have arms until the response of strangers reminds me that I am someone different. 

That was until a point in my life around the time I was in college when I decided to embrace my difference and have fun with it. One April Fools’ Day, I wore a fake arm made of rubber and asked a stranger to shake my hand. The phony arm would detach while shaking my “hand.” This was one of many practical jokes I played on people in college.

After college, I moved up to more professional pranks. I decided to be an Uber driver purely for the fun of seeing my passengers’ faces when they hop into the car and see an armless driver. What a riot that was! I have always entertained the idea of taking that prank up a notch. What would it be like to welcome passengers to a commercial flight where I am captain? This is one of my fun fantasies.

I was thrilled to interview Eric Gaffney, a United Airlines 737 pilot born missing one hand. I'm sharing his story to celebrate April as Limb Loss and Limb Difference Awareness Month.

The first question I asked him was about people’s reactions when they see him. He said that, like me, he used to hide his difference. Wearing a jacket made it easier to hide the missing hand. Now he wears tailored jackets to show his pride in being different. He said there are always double-takes when walking through the airport, but people are always respectful. He loves how kids are curious and are not afraid to ask questions. He would see passengers staring at him and hear them talking about him.

Interestingly, one of his colleagues put it well when he said the reactions are comparable to those elicited by seeing a woman in the cockpit. Eric believes that representation matters—a little girl would be inspired by seeing a female pilot just as someone with a disability would be encouraged by seeing Eric in the cockpit.

Eric has been flying for 13 years, seven of which were with United Airlines. For him, the best part is the freedom he feels. He loves flying around a thunderstorm and had the incredible experience of flying over Alaskan skies and seeing the Northern Lights.

His inspiration to be in aviation came from childhood. His father was a mechanic for American Airlines, so he grew up with aviation influence in the family. He traveled a lot, and his dad showed him pictures of airplanes as a child.

Currently, Eric does scheduling for his pilot union. Because of his passion for teaching, he may become a check airman. He is proud to be the author of a children’s book, Airick Flies High. This is just one of the ways he advocates for limb difference. The book is available on Amazon, and I highly recommend it. One in 1,900 babies will be born with a limb difference. That would have been a dire forecast without people like Erik—shining examples of what you can achieve when you embrace your difference and turn it into something special for the world.

Maybe someday Eric and I can pull off an epic prank for April Fools’ Day. Or maybe he can check me out for my medical flight review in The Impossible Airplane. Either way, it will be a riot when we join forces.

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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