Imagine earning your pilot certificate and finding out the nearest airplane you can rent is four hours away, and you’ll begin to understand what drove John Robinson to create a nonprofit organization to expand access to adapted aircraft. A year after earning his sport pilot certificate with help from Able Flight, Robinson has been able to log just one flight. The logistical challenge of finding an aircraft in his local area that suits his needs has proved the latest challenge this military veteran has faced—and he’s formed a plan to overcome it.
It is a problem, Robinson said, that many, if not most, Able Flight graduates must grapple with: the relative rarity of aircraft with hand controls adapted for pilots with physical challenges that make booting a rudder pedal the one thing they cannot do in an airplane. Able Flight students gather for intensive training each year at Purdue University, where bonds are formed that endure long beyond the checkride. Robinson said he is in regular contact with fellow Able Flight graduates around the country, including several in the region around his home in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Robinson’s closest airplane rental option is a four-hour drive away in Georgia, and he said that even the simplest flight requires at least one night in a hotel, and time away from his work as a mental health counselor. When he returned home from Purdue with his sport pilot certificate a year ago, he found the aviation bug had bitten hard, and frustration soon ensued. "All I want to do, I want to fly.”
He cut back his counseling work to part-time, and set to work creating a nonprofit organization called AV84all to help facilitate aviation for Able Flight graduates and other pilots with physical challenges by building adapted airplanes from kits that Robinson hopes to one day see deployed at locations across the country. That effort will begin soon with the first aircraft, a Zenith CH 750 Cruzer that will begin to take shape in September about half an hour from Robinson’s home. He will happily make that shorter trek many, many times to join members of Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1083 based at Rowan County Airport in Salisbury, North Carolina, who will lend their skill and expertise to assemble the Zenith kit.
Robinson and the EAA chapter members building the kitplane will be assisted by Zenith Aircraft, which donated the time and services of company engineers who will work with Robinson to customize the Cruzer for use by pilots who do not have the use of their legs. Robinson said that came about thanks to Able Flight Executive Director Charles Stites, who has long worked with Zenith Aircraft to support Able Flight’s mission to create opportunities for people to overcome physical challenges and earn pilot certificates.
“I am hopeful that the success of this project will inspire similar efforts throughout the country,” Stites said in a press release.
Robinson, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1988 to 1992 (during Operation Desert Storm) said his 20 years of using a wheelchair following a 1996 car crash have given him insight into the needs of pilots who face similar challenges—insight that is also informed by countless conversations with others who are in similar situations. He hopes the aircraft and custom controls will become a model for others to replicate around the country. Robinson has established a registered nonprofit organization to accept tax-deductible donations, and hopes to use donations to reduce or eliminate the hourly cost for pilots who fly the adapted airplane.
“It’s going to be free, or as minimal as possible” to rent the AV84all aircraft, Robinson said. He has personally invested thousands of dollars of his own to get things started, he said, and said the EAA chapter’s positive response and hands-on help will make it possible to finish the project in about a year, much sooner than he otherwise could.
“Hopefully this build will be the test and we’ll work out all the kinks,” Robinson said. The word has gotten out to fellow Able Flight pilots in the area, and he expects the Cruzer will be much in demand.
“I’m very thankful that the chapter here decided to help me take it on. Without their skill and knowledge, I would not be going this route.”