The newest class of pilots to earn their sport pilot certificates through the organization Able Flight got their wings July 26 at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis.
Able Flight, which awards flight training—and now aviation maintenance—scholarships to people with physical disabilities, presented the wings and one framed wrench to four scholarship recipients at ConocoPhillips Plaza. Nineteen students have earned their pilot certificates through the program since it started in 2006, according to Executive Director Charles Stites.
“When you’re in the airplane, there is no ability or disability,” Sean O’Donnell, a former Able Flight scholarship recipient who makes his Sky Arrow available for training, told AOPA. “There is just the pilot in the airplane. … It absolutely evens the playing field. Once you’re out of the chair and in the airplane, you’re just like every other pilot.”
Some graduates had previously thought their disabilities would keep them from their dream of flight. Kevin Crombie said he always wanted to be a pilot, but was told that the FAA wouldn’t approve of him getting a medical. Through Able Flight, he learned to fly in a modified Sky Arrow 600.
“Getting your wings is like no other,” he said. “You’re free now.”
Now he wants to become a sport pilot instructor, so that he can pass on what he’s learned.
“For me, it would have been awesome to have been taught by someone in a chair,” he said. “Because … there’s a lot of tips you can give out.” Down the road, he wants to become an air traffic controller.
Crombie’s longtime friend Eric Ingram also earned his wings through the program and said the moment he touched down from his checkride offered a nice realization.
“I didn’t think it was possible at all, and finding out that it is, it was amazing. I was surprised and excited, and knowing now that it is possible, that I’ve actually made it to the other side, I would encourage anyone and everyone, disability or not. It’s something to try. It’s a great experience.”
For Paul Lampasso, who earned his light sport repairman qualification through Able Flight’s Career Training Scholarship, Able Flight opened his eyes to opportunities in aviation that he had thought were closed off years ago.
“I’ve been an airport bum for years and years,” he said. Lampasso went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University out of high school, but a cancer diagnosis altered the course of his life: He beat the cancer, he said, but thought he’d never be able to get a medical certificate to fly.
So he became a New York City firefighter. Lampasso had injured his knee on duty at a fire but responded to the Sept. 11 attacks at the World Trade Center anyway, aggravating the injury. He retired on disability and now lives in Florida.
When he saw information about the new Able Flight maintenance scholarship in a magazine, he said, he was apprehensive: Was his injury serious enough for him to be considered for the career training scholarship? And he didn’t apply for the flight training scholarships to pursue his original dream because he thought his history of cancer would disqualify him from receiving a medical.
Lampasso received the scholarship and used it for a light sport repairman course at Rainbow Aviation in California. He also found out from his experience with Able Flight that he didn’t need to write off flying.
Now he’s back to his original plan from out of high school: Become a pilot and pursue a career in aviation. He has a medical in hand and said he received a grant from the Florida Division of Vocational Education and is working toward getting ratings through CFI and multiengine instructor.
Army Specialist Jermaine Strachan found out about Able Flight while he was being treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after being injured in Iraq. Strachan said a major general came to Walter Reed and took some wounded soldiers flying. He gave Strachan the controls, “and ever since then I fell in love with it,” he said.
He told his occupational therapist that he wanted to fly, and she found the program online. As a hands-on type of person, he was nervous about the ground school portion of his training but put in the hard work and earned his certificate. He offered advice to others who might be thinking of flying:
“You just got to believe in yourself and actually try it. Don’t pass on it. If you have a chance, go for it.”