April 1, 2006
What started as a pleasant day at his construction work site became a nightmare for 30-year-old Jon Lion of California. Like so many times before, Lion climbed up the ladder to the roof to pound nails and make a straight line in the roof tiles that were being laid. Moments later, a small slip and Lion's life changed forever. He plummeted downward, a fall that broke his back and paralyzed him from the waist down. The nerve damage to his spinal cord was so severe that Lion will never feel his legs or feet again.
After his months-long stay in the hospital and extremely painful daily physical therapy sessions, Lion recovered enough to go home. He tumbled into terrible bouts of depression. But, as he lay in his bed for months on end, he decided to pursue a dream. As a young boy, Lion had worked odd jobs for a neighbor. She was a pilot, owned her own 1947 Cessna 140, and asked if he would like to take a ride. The runway was the dirt road out front of the house. He burned a straight line to the old taildragger and minutes later, took his first flight over those fields of wheat and corn in the Midwest. He was hooked.
The dream to fly was awakened by the fall that nearly killed him.
Lion needed someone who understood deeply what it is like to be in a wheelchair and attempt to obtain a pilot certificate. He found exactly what he was looking for, Mike Smith, a CFI in Big Bear, California. It turned out Smith experiences on a daily basis what few instructors have — a wheelchair. He, too, was crippled in an accident and suffered severe injuries that left his legs nonfunctional. Smith runs an FBO, specializes in training disabled students, and through a specially prepared course, instructs them towards obtaining a certificate.
Lion received his private pilot certificate in 108 hours of combined dual and solo flight time on June 9, 1997. On September 30, 1997, Lion received his instrument rating; on April 23, 1999, he got his commercial certificate; on June 21, 2000, he became a CFI. He purchased a Cessna Cardinal and later a Cessna 337.
Lion says, "Someday I would like to fly for the Forest Service or a similar organization. I would love to have a job flying commercially. I have the greatest feeling of accomplishment, since being in a wheelchair. Anyone in the same condition or limitation really needs to experience flying."
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