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Armless pilot celebrates ADA anniversary in flightArmless pilot celebrates ADA anniversary in flight

Jessica Cox and Sen. Tom Harkin mark 30-year anniversary with a special flightJessica Cox and Sen. Tom Harkin mark 30-year anniversary with a special flight

It’s been nearly 30 years since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) celebrated his landmark bill with “the most fun” event in his weekend of celebrations. He flew with Jessica Cox, the first certificated pilot without arms, in her Ercoupe at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland.

“I’ve been in Washington and doing events, but this day has been the best,” Harkin said after he noted that Cox “greased” the landing at Frederick Municipal Airport. “Her first landing was so-so, but then she went back to do it again—with all of these cameras rolling—and it was just perfect, she greased it. It was perfect.”

Cox earned her sport pilot certificate in 2008. She is the first pilot without arms to earn a certificate—she uses her feet to fly an Ercoupe without rudder pedals under sport pilot privileges. A motivational speaker, the Tucson-based Cox uses the moniker “Rightfooted,” which is also the name of a movie she helped produce in 2014. She was born in 1983 without arms and uses her feet and toes like arms and fingers. She is also the first armless black belt in taekwondo, and is an armless surfer and scuba diver. Typing at 25 words per minute, she signs her emails “toes on the touchscreen.”

“It was a privilege to fly with the person who made so much of a difference in the lives of those like me,” Cox said after landing. “It was a privilege to get to talk to Senator Harkin about the work he has done—and to talk about what still needs to be done.”

Pilot Jessica Cox, who was born without arms and flies an Ercoupe with integrated aileron and rudder controls, demonstrates her technique for flying the aircraft with her toes during a stop at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland. Photo by David Tulis.

Cox and Harkin flew the pattern at Frederick several times. Cox controls the airplane with one foot on the yoke and the other on the throttle. It was a hot and humid morning, but that did not deter either pilot. Harkin is a former Navy pilot, active GA pilot, and member of the Congressional GA caucus (and AOPA).

“Her air maneuvers were just perfect,” he said. “It was a delightful flight.”

Harkin was a champion of the ADA for many reasons, including having a brother who was deaf and a nephew who is a paraplegic. “The ADA showed people that disabilities shouldn’t hold someone back. There was so much negativity. Young people who have grown up with ADA know no difference, and they don’t expect to be held back.”

The ADA was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. Under ADA, workplaces and public spaces were transformed—curbs were cut and lowered to allow wheelchair accessibility, ramp space was included in new construction, and so much more. What people take for granted in 2020 was nonexistent just 30 years ago.

“Jessica Cox has worked with Humanity & Inclusion [previously Handicap International] since 2013, representing the organization in places like Ethiopia, the Philippines, and Nepal,” said Jeff Meer, U.S. Executive Director for Humanity & Inclusion. “In the U.S., Cox has reflected those experiences in advocacy to keep the pressure on the U.S. to ratify the treaty of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We are grateful to her for leadership on this unfinished business.”

Harkin and Cox attempted to fly together several years ago. “It was during a meeting with Senator Harkin about seven years ago working on treaty ratification that the two first spoke of flying together,” Meer said. “Humanity & Inclusion is thrilled to be part of the moment when they realize that goal. The Treaty in some ways mirrors another critical instrument, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which we celebrate this week.”

“It was a great day,” said Harkin. “One of the best of my career.”

Motivational speaker, Americans with Disabilities Act advocate, and pilot Jessica Cox, who was born without arms and flies an Ercoupe with integrated aileron and rudder controls, poses for a portrait with husband Patrick Chamberlain at Frederick Municipal Airport in Maryland. Photo by David Tulis. Motivational speaker, Americans with Disabilities Act advocate, and pilot Jessica Cox visits AOPA headquarters at Maryland's Frederick Municipal Airport with fellow Ercoupe pilots R. Lee Townsend, right, and Joe Novotny, left, to bring attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA. Photo by David Tulis. Motivational speaker, Americans with Disabilities Act advocate, and pilot Jessica Cox meets with AOPA President Mark Baker at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, to bring attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo by David Tulis. AOPA President Mark Baker meets with Americans with Disabilities Act advocate and pilot Jessica Cox and a team of supporters during a stop at AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, to bring attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA. Photo by David Tulis. News media surround Americans with Disabilities Act advocate and pilot Jessica Cox as she prepares to fly with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) during a visit to AOPA headquarters. Photo by David Tulis. Americans with Disabilities Act advocate and pilot Jessica Cox preflights her Ercoupe with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an instrument-rated pilot who promoted the ADA bill, during a visit to AOPA headquarters to bring attention to the act's thirtieth anniversary. Photo by David Tulis. Pilot Jessica Cox, who was born without arms and uses her feet and toes in place of hands, checks the oil in her Ercoupe with pilot and retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who promoted the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo by David Tulis. Americans with Disabilities Act advocate and pilot Jessica Cox, who was born without arms and uses her feet and toes in place of hands, preflights her Ercoupe with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an active pilot who promoted the ADA. Photo by David Tulis. Pilot and motivational speaker Jessica Cox, who was born without arms, preflights her Ercoupe with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an instrument-rated pilot. Photo by David Tulis. Pilot and motivational speaker Jessica Cox, who was born without arms and uses her feet and toes in place of hands, prepares to fly an Ercoupe with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who promoted the Americans with Disabilities Act while he was in office. The flight celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the act. Photo by David Tulis. Pilot Jessica Cox kisses husband Patrick Chamberlain before flying her Ercoupe with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo by David Tulis. Jessica Cox flies an Ercoupe with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) in Frederick, Maryland, during activities to bring attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo by David Tulis.                                                                 Motivational speaker Jessica Cox flies an Ercoupe with passenger and retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo by David Tulis. Jessica Cox and retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) fly around Frederick, Maryland, to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Photo by David Tulis.   American with Disabilities Act advocate Jessica Cox flies an Ercoupe that she controls with her toes at Frederick Municipal Airport to help celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA bill July 24. Image courtesy of Rightfooted Foundation International. Jessica Cox lands an Ercoupe with passenger and retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a pilot who promoted the Americans with Disabilities Act while he was in office, to bring attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the measure. Photo by David Tulis. American with Disabilities Act advocate Jessica Cox lines up for landing in an Ercoupe that she flies with her toes at Frederick Municipal Airport with passenger, pilot, and retired Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to help celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA bill July 24. Image courtesy of Rightfooted Foundation International. Americans with Disabilities Act advocate and pilot Jessica Cox lands her Ercoupe with retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a pilot who promoted the ADA bill while he was in office, during a visit to Frederick Municipal Airport in Frederick, Maryland. The flight highlighted the thirtieth anniversary of the measure. Photo by David Tulis.
Julie Walker

Julie Summers Walker

AOPA Senior Features Editor
AOPA Senior Features Editor Julie Summers Walker joined AOPA in 1998. She is a student pilot still working toward her solo.
Topics: People, Aviation Industry, Capitol Hill

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