April 1, 2004
Julie K. Boatman
For most pilots, flying FA2 Harriers for Britain's Royal Air Force would be adventure enough for one lifetime. And Tim Ellison, who amassed 2,500 hours of military jet time and served as a weapons instructor during 11 years in the RAF, concurs that the Harrier is "the ultimate pilot's machine: tons of power, seven different ways to take off, and 14 different ways to land." But an engine failure in May 1992 while hovering at 120 feet agl — too low for Ellison to eject — left him paraplegic, and at the cusp of a new challenge.
After spending a year in the hospital listening to a choir of experts lament that he would be unable to walk or fly again, Ellison was desperate. "Flying was all I knew; I started looking for opportunities to work commercially in aviation. I soon discovered that in Europe there was no provision for disabled people like myself to work as pilots."
Looking to the United States, he found that by acquiring the FAA's statement of demonstrated ability (SODA) waiver, he could obtain a commercial certificate and possibly find work. His research led him to Big Bear, California, and Aero Haven flight school, where Mike Smith, a paraplegic flight instructor and air taxi pilot, taught him to fly general aviation aircraft such as the Piper Arrow and Cessna 172. In the summer of 1994, Ellison regained his commercial and instrument privileges and passed a Part 135 checkout. Smith hired him to fly charters.
Big Bear City Airport is in the heart of the Southern California wilderness, and it is the staging ground for fighting forest fires in the area. Ellison flew air attack, similar to forward air control (FAC), in a Cessna Skymaster under contract for the U.S. Forest Service in support of firefighting operations. "I used to fly Harriers with FAC; now the roles were reversed!" says Ellison.
In 1997, Ellison became the first paraplegic to gain an FAA airline transport pilot (ATP) certificate post-injury. At that point, he returned to England in a 1981 Beechcraft A36TC Bonanza modified by Louis Rigo in Long Beach, California. To fly the Bonanza, Ellison worked the rudder with a special hand control. This makes crosswind landings a particular test, but he has successfully managed conditions reflecting the Bonanza's demonstrated crosswind component of 17 knots.
Improving opportunities for disabled pilots and aspirants in Europe, Ellison cofounded the British Disabled Flying Club (BDFC) and presented himself again to the British Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) — this time with his FAA ATP and first class medical. "Now they listened to me and were more sympathetic," says Ellison. Within a year he became the first paraplegic in Europe to acquire a commercial license with instrument privileges. Now disabled pilots can be employed in Europe.
Ellison continues his work with the BDFC, promoting events such as fly-ins where disabled people from local communities can fly with BDFC volunteers in their aircraft. Ellison was awarded the Royal Aero Club Silver Medal in 2000.
In 2001, Ellison and Mark Wilkinson entered the 1981 Bonanza in the London-Sydney Air Race. They flew through "parts of the world with no general aviation, and certainly no disabled pilots," says Ellison, and attracted lots of press along the way. The pair finished first in the single-engine class, and second overall to a highly sponsored and specially built Piper Aerostar 700. After completing the race, Ellison and Wilkinson finished a circumnavigation by flying back to England via the South Pacific and North America. Ellison, only the third paraplegic to have accomplished an around-the-world flight, raised more than $50,000 for the BDFC.
Ellison is currently raising money to purchase a turbine Bonanza. On behalf of the BDFC, he recently accepted four BAe Bulldog Model 125 training aircraft from the Royal Jordanian Air Force to adapt for use by disabled pilots.
Ellison's primary goal remains to fight discrimination against the disabled in aviation. For his work, Ellison received the Segrave Trophy in November 2002.
"To get a disabled person in one of the front seats of an airliner — that will be the precedent, the watershed," says Ellison. "It may not happen in my career, but I want to give future generations the opportunity."
E-mail the author at email@example.com.
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