November 1, 2007
By Julie Summers Walker
At 17, Sean O'Donnell was riding his motorcycle and was T-boned. If you're not familiar with that term, here's a better description—O'Donnell was hit broadside by an oncoming car, thrown from his motorcycle, slammed into a rock, and suffered a T-3 level injury; he is paralyzed from the middle of his chest down. At 17, one would think life was over.
"I woke up with this and said I'm not going to cry about it," says O'Donnell, now 29. In less than one month he was out of the hospital, back in school. He graduated with his class, went on to college, and is now the director of distance education at Villanova University.
But all throughout the years, O'Donnell never forgot one desire—to learn to fly. "I always wanted to fly; it's been a dream. But when I faced my life in paralysis, all my dreams and hopes went to the side. I needed to learn how to simply live. Once I became comfortable with my body, I thought 'now what can I do,'" he says.
O'Donnell flew with friends and relatives but wanted to take the controls himself. "Getting in is nice, but for a guy like me, taking the controls is where I need to be," he says.
Online he discovered Able Flight, a new organization that was offering its first scholarships to disabled pilots to learn to fly in a specially adapted Sky Arrow. The scholarships are an all-expenses award, which covers ground and flight training, testing, travel, and lodging for a four-week period. O'Donnell spent the month of July in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in training. He soloed on July 13 and got his certificate July 22, the opening day of EAA AirVenture 2007.
It's the adapted Sky Arrow that enables people like O'Donnell to be able to fly. The aircraft has hand controls integrated into the flight control system. A T-bar is inserted in the aircraft allowing for rudder and throttle control in one stick; elevator and aileron is in the other hand. Removing the T-bar makes the aircraft "normal" again. Access is easy too because of the aircraft's tandem seat, high-wing design.
O'Donnell has partnered with Able Flight and has purchased an adapted Sky Arrow, which will arrive at O'Donnell's home base in December. Philly Sport Pilot LLC will offer training for all pilots in the Sport Pilot category; O'Donnell is currently looking for instructors.
For more information on Able Flight, visit the Web site.
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
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