Just something to overcome
It’s a clear winter day at Manassas Municipal Airport in northern Virginia, and Duckworth is working toward earning an FAA fixed-wing pilot certificate. She already had obtained a third class medical, soloed a Piper Cherokee in 2008, and she retains the instrument, commercial, and rotorcraft certificates from the military.
Today she’s flying a Piper Cherokee with Ben Negussie, a former airline pilot and veteran instructor at Dulles Aviation. Negussie has never taught a disabled student before, and he holds Duckworth to the same standards as other students.
“I don’t go easy on her,” Negussie said. “If anything, she’s raised the bar for everyone else. When someone complains or makes excuses about long hours at work, or being tired, or having a bad day, I think of Tammy Duckworth. She never complains. She’s always willing to learn. She works hard, asks questions, and constantly seeks new information.”
Duckworth wears one prosthetic leg—the left one—when she flies, and she uses it to alternately press the left and right rudder pedals. (The Cherokee has a hand brake.) The prosthetic itself is covered in Army camouflage print, and Duckworth attached a “Fly Army” sticker on what would be the shin. She wears a bright pink left shoe because it’s easy to see when she looks down in the shadows under the instrument panel to see whether the foot is properly positioned on the correct rudder pedal.
She performs the preflight inspection from a wheelchair and prefers the low–wing airplane because she can see and touch more of it on the ground.
A Black Hawk noisily flies over the airport on its way to Washington, D.C., and she looks up as soon as she hears the distinctive thump of its rotor blades. “That’s my bird!” she calls out enthusiastically as it goes by. Then, more quietly, she adds that the sight of the proud and powerful helicopter “almost breaks my heart.”
Duckworth is a major in the Illinois Army National Guard but her injuries preclude further military flying. She’s been back in the Black Hawk simulator and can still operate the controls just fine. She’s no longer capable of performing other required duties, however, such as carrying a wounded fellow soldier on her back, and that makes her “non-deployable” in military parlance.
Cherokee preflight complete, she backs her wheelchair up to the rear of the right wing, lifts herself onto it, and shimmies into the left seat. During an hour-long stage check in preparation for an FAA checkride, she performs a series of steep turns, stalls, and emergency procedures. Her flying is steady and disciplined, but joyful, too, as she points out a bald eagle in flight, laughs at her mistakes, then works to correct them.
“Adding full power all at once goes against all of my instincts and training,” she says. “If you did that in my former aircraft, it’d be a disaster. That’s not an excuse. It’s just something to overcome.”
Her toughest stumbling blocks in fixed-wing flying are habits she must “unlearn” from helicopters. When Negussie faults her for being too slow to add full power in a stall recovery, she accepts the criticism without argument. “Adding full power all at once goes against all of my instincts and training,” she says. “If you did that in my former aircraft, it’d be a disaster. That’s not an excuse. It’s just something to overcome.”
When Negussie points out she’s too high on a simulated engine-out approach, her eyebrows arch. In a helicopter, the approach would be too low. She looks at Negussie sympathetically and laughs that he’s got a tough job trying to break her deeply ingrained habits from military helicopters.
“What do you mean we can’t rip around 10 feet over the treetops at 120 knots?” she asks with mock astonishment—a trace of Hawaii pidgin inflected in her voice. “You telling me there’s something wrong with that?”
Returning to the airport at Manassas, the ATIS reports clear skies and calm winds. “Smooth air,” she says with feigned horror. “Damn it! Now I have no excuses!”