All it took was one person to tell pilot Stewart McQuillen that as a paraplegic, flying a helicopter could not be done.
"I love a challenge," said McQuillen, a former pilot with the Royal Air Force, who was crushed by the flight controls of a Tornado GR1 during an accident while part of the Strike Squadron in Germany. He was also thrown to the ground by the control surface.
"Imagine if today you can walk across the road, and then tomorrow morning you are lying in a hospital bed being told you'll never walk again," said McQuillen. "You worry about how you're going to make a living and support your family. It's like drowning. It really is."
But how did he find the strength to overcome the challenge of his spinal cord injury?
"You have to fight for it," said McQuillen. It took several years of experimenting and perfecting the system that allows him to fly helicopters - the AeroLeg - before he would introduce it to the aviation community.
The device attaches to his legs and connects his feet to the anti-torque pedals controlled with his thumbs. Patented in Europe and the United States, the AeroLeg helped McQuillen earn his private pilot certificate at the Helicenter International Academy in August 2003.
The AeroLeg has achieved certifications and authorizations from the FAA and the federal government so that it may be used safely in helicopters.
"It's the only system available for paraplegics worldwide," said McQuillen, who only flew fixed-wing aircraft before his accident.
He was denied the ability to fly through helicopter companies until he discovered Ocean Helicopters' flight training school in West Palm Beach, Fla.
In collaboration with Ocean Helicopters and the U.S. Phoenix Trust Foundation, a project is under way to raise awareness about McQuillen's efforts geared toward helping paraplegic pilots get back in the air.
McQuillen is the only person able to train others, and he said these pilots will "literally have to learn to fly again." That is why courses at the flight school will be necessary.
"It all comes down to an assessment of the individual and their condition, but there is no reason why they can't do what they did before, within reason," said McQuillen.
Some of the paraplegic pilots will be able to flight instruct upon completion of the required flight training. This includes an FAA issuance of a second class or third class medical certificate, a statement of demonstrated ability (SODA), and a successful checkride, according to McQuillen.
"There is lots of opportunity in the industry," he said, adding that these pilots will be appreciated and can establish long-lasting relationships with their students, as they "won't be moving on from the flight school to become career pilots. It's not the right environment for them."
McQuillen said there is a "tremendous interest, and the next progression will be multiengine."
As for now, he said this is "just a start, and we will keep improving." - Kate Opalewski
August 30, 2007