Flying without sound
By Sarah Brown
Brent Redpath has long dreamed of flying. From his experiences as a young boy traveling by air, he remembers the excitement of takeoff and landing and the thrill of watching planes from the window of the airport. Born deaf, Redpath could not hear the roar of the jet engines, but the motion of the airplanes inspired him to learn to fly. Now, at age 20, He is realizing his dream.
“I loved watching the movement of the aircrafts and I would picture myself behind the wheel taking control,” Redpath said in an e–mail to AOPA. “My dream started from a young age and each exposure I had with airplanes made me more interested in flying.”
Redpath started taking lessons in January at Independence State Airport in Oregon. He communicates with his instructor before each flight by writing notes on a dry–erase board, and the two write on a clipboard and use hand signals for in–flight commands.
Deaf and hard–of–hearing students can obtain a pilot’s certificate with the limitation “Not valid for flying where radio use is required.” According to Mark Stern, secretary of the Deaf Pilots Association, that leaves most of the skies wide open to deaf pilots.
“Since less than 5 percent of all airports in the U.S. are towered, and since the vast majority of airspace is not controlled, there are plenty of places to go flying where radio use is not required,” Stern said. At last count, there were about 200 pilots in the United States who had hearing loss that required the radio–use limitation, he said.
Redpath, a student at Western Oregon University, has wanted to learn to fly for a long time, but he had been taking his time to find an instructor who would best fit his needs. He found one in Wayne Nutsch, who runs a small flight school out of the Independence airport with his wife. Redpath lives about five minutes from the airport; he said he had been eating breakfast at the airport restaurant to watch the planes take off and land, and one day he decided to see if the airport offered flight training. He called Nutsch using the video relay service offered by the FCC, and the two scheduled a meeting.
“I brought my girlfriend along to interpret for me as I met with him for the first time,” Redpath said. “We talked about ourselves and about how we can work together to communicate. He was very cool and easy–going about my Deafness, I was very fortunate.”
Stern said deaf student pilots and their instructors must work together and keep an open mind to find their own way to communicate, whether through sign language, lip–reading, writing on a whiteboard, or other methods. Deaf Pilots Association members have worked with instructors throughout the country to obtain their private pilot certificates, he said.
“As in any relationship, it is essential for the deaf student pilot to find the right chemistry with a flight instructor who is able and eager to work through any communication needs,” Stern said.
Nutsch communicates with Redpath throughout the week via e–mails and text messages, and he assigns material for Redpath to read between lessons. Before each flight, he goes over everything in writing. “We don’t start a lesson unless we know clearly what to do,” Nutsch said.
Once airborne, Nutsch uses hand signals for any commands that must be made quickly. Redpath said these visual cues help him make adjustments during the final approach for landing, but he will have to rely on them less as he continues to improve. He has learned to recognize stalls–which are signaled by a loud warning horn–by the change in vibrations of the aircraft. When it comes time for Redpath to solo at a controlled airport, Nutsch said they will make arrangements for him to use light signals on takeoff and landing.
Redpath said he plans to become a member of the Deaf Pilots Association and to attend the organization’s annual fly–ins. He is majoring in American Sign Language and wants to teach after graduation.
“In addition to teaching, I plan to fly the rest of my life as well!”