July 1998Training Topics

In Training

Wheelchair Wings: Teaching disabled students

"When I was first in the hospital, I couldn't even put my socks on, let alone fly an airplane," Rod Sage says. "I never thought I'd fly again. " The victim of an industrial accident, Rod was an avid pilot before a fall broke his back and landed him in a wheelchair. Soon, however, he was learning to cope with his disability, and within eight months he was back at the controls of his airplane.

Armed with a hand control, Rod set out to obtain the necessary FAA blessings so he could fly again. At a local flight school he met Kevin, a young flight instructor willing to help Rod learn to fly without using his legs. Because neither Kevin nor Rod had any experience with this type of training, they taught themselves.

What they discovered is that you don't need years of experience teaching disabled pilots to be successful. An instructor has the tools a student needs, and a disabled student needs patience and persistence. No matter which side of the cockpit you sit in, you can ease your workload with some of the wisdom that Rod and Kevin discovered during their journey.

Hand Controls

A paraplegic student needs a hand control to operate the rudder. The control can be portable or permanent, and the latter is installed under an approved Supplemental Type Certificate. The Cherokee MK1, also known as the "Blackwood control," is an example of a portable hand control for Piper aircraft. It's a bar that bolts to the right seat's left rudder pedal and extends forward of the throttle quadrant. The pilot controls the rudder by moving the handle up and down, and a hand lever applies the brakes.

At the time of his accident, Rod owned a Piper Arrow and consequently purchased the Blackwood control. Whatever hand control you choose, be aware of the STC's limitations and make sure the paperwork is in order before you use it.

FAA Requirements

Paraplegics don't comply with the FAA medical certification requirements, but they can get a medical certificate with a Statement Of Demonstrated Ability - SODA. To get a SODA, the pilot must demonstrate his (or her) ability to operate the airplane safely during a "special medical flight test" with an FAA inspector.

To get a SODA, the General Aviation Operations Inspector's Handbook (FAA Order 8700) specifies what maneuvers a disabled pilot must demonstrate. An applicant "with a deformity or absence of the extremities" must demonstrate his ability to reach and operate all controls, and to perform relevant emergency procedures such as stall recovery. Generally, if an applicant can fly the airplane safely and comfortably to the practical test standards, he's ready to obtain the SODA. Before an applicant can take this "SODA flight," he must get a letter of authorization from the FAA Aeromedical Certification Division in Oklahoma City. Getting this letter is part of the pilot's medical examination. Based on the pilot's physical deficiency, the aviation medical examiner defers the issuance of a medical certificate to the FAA. After the exam the AME forwards the pilot's paperwork to the FAA and requests a SODA. This process may include submission of medical records and other tests, but when the pilot receives the letter, he can schedule his SODA flight with the local Flight Standards District Office.

A first-time student doesn't necessarily need a SODA to solo. After receiving the pilot's medical information, the FAA may issue a third-class medical/student pilot certificate with a restriction - valid for student pilot purposes only. Student pilot purposes includes solo flight.

A new student may combine his SODA flight and recreational or private pilot checkride, or he may elect to take the SODA before his checkride. The protocol varies among FSDOs, and depending on the pilot's disability, the FAA may require a medical test before it issues a medical certificate.

Dr. Richard S. Kaplan is an AME and a CFI, and he says that taking the SODA flight early in a pilot's training is advisable. "Taking the medical checkride before soloing inspires both student and instructor confidence," he says. "Also, many instructors give students pre-solo phase checks, so it might as well be with the FAA." Finally, with the SODA flight accomplished, the student knows he has the ability to earn his certificate.

The process is similar if the applicant is like Rod, a certificated pilot who's applying for a SODA only. In this case, the pilot gets a medical without the student pilot limitation. The AME forwards the pilot's paperwork to Oklahoma City and requests a SODA. If the pilot's medical condition is stable, the FAA issues the SODA without an expiration date. Once a pilot demonstrates his ability in the SODA flight, he won't have to repeat it.

Dr. Kaplan says AMEs with limited aviation experience sometimes discourage potential pilots who need a SODA. The doctor may dismiss the applicant as being unable to hold a medical certificate, when, in fact, the FAA would allow the individual's disability. "If possible, the student should visit an AME who is also a pilot," Kaplan says, and an AME who has previously worked with disabled pilots would be ideal. His best advice on getting a SODA is to start early in training. The FAA can take from three to six months to process a letter of authorization.


There are no set flight training techniques that work for all disabled students. Mike Smith, president of the International Wheelchair Aviators (IWA), is a wheelchair pilot and an active CFI who says all paraplegic students are different. "We assess the injury and level of ability and then make training adjustments to meet individual needs," Smith says. He cautions that a technique that works for one student may not work for another, but he sees some difficulties more frequently than others.

Back strength can be an important factor. Compared to their ability to push, some paraplegics may not be able to pull heavy weights, which means they may have trouble performing certain tasks. For example, using a Blackwood-type control, the pilot pulls up on the bar to turn right and pushes down to turn left. Rod found it easier to make (pushing) left turns on the taxiway, so he tries to maneuver the airplane on the ground with left turns whenever possible.

Flaring to land also requires (pulling) back strength. To compensate, Rod and Kevin learned to trim the airplane slightly nose up on final approach. Rod has plenty of strength to push the yoke forward to maintain the correct attitude, and when he relaxes his push, the nose rises and the airplane essentially flares itself.

"Sometimes you have to throw out conventional methods and get creative," Rod says. If a pilot is having trouble with a particular maneuver because a weak muscle group must supply the power, try to fly the airplane in a way that lets another group compensate.

When a paraplegic student uses a hand control, "you're short one hand and two feet," Rod says. During takeoff, for example, he has to control the yoke, rudder bar, and throttle simultaneously. What technique the pilot uses depends on his abilities.

"We teach students where to put their hands" so they don't get crossed up, Smith says. Also, he stresses that disabled pilots must develop standard procedures and follow them exactly every time they fly. They not only have to operate the airplane properly, they must be comfortable doing so. "We cannot adapt the PTS, so we have to adapt the students, and they must make it look effortless."

For example, on a normal takeoff the applicant must position the flight controls properly, apply takeoff power smoothly, maintain directional control, maintain full power, and retract the landing gear and flaps. This keeps all of an able-bodied student's appendages busy, but because the PTS has no flexibility for a disabled pilot to perform these tasks, he must manage his limited resources efficiently.

Go-arounds also keep students busy, and Dr. Kaplan, wearing his CFI hat, says the FAA emphasizes this maneuver during the SODA flight. Rod Sage agrees. "Full-flap go-arounds are a real handful. The inspector wanted to make sure I could handle the worst-case scenario."

Simple Demands

Some seemingly simple tasks, such as getting in the airplane, are more demanding for disabled students. Many paraplegics feel that low-wing airplanes are easier to enter. By sliding across the wing, Rod found that he could get into the Cherokee unassisted, and then put his chair in the baggage compartment. Rod uses a small mat that offers some padding and protects the wing's finish as he pulls himself into the cockpit. On one flight, he started the engine and saw his pad fly away. "I added 'carpet secure' to my checklist after that."

Frustration is something all students must deal with at some point, but Rod says it might have been easier for him to learn to fly from zero time as a paraplegic, rather than just learning to use the hand control. "It is difficult to re-learn something you could previously do well," he says. Rod was an instrument-rated private pilot with more than 700 hours at the time of his accident. "If I didn't already know how to fly, the hand control would just have been one more thing to learn. There were days when I thought I'd never get it."

Disabled pilots must also think about many things able-bodied pilots do not, such as handicapped facilities at their destination airport. In the event of an emergency landing, how will a wheelchair deal with the terrain? How does a pilot push an airplane or clear it of snow and frost from a wheelchair? In many cases, pilots can alleviate these problems with thorough preflight planning. A motorized tow bar allows a disabled pilot to easily move an airplane, and a heated hangar is a big plus in snowy climates.

If you are an instructor with a disabled student, Mike Smith says "help is only a phone call away." He invites all CFIs teaching handicapped students to call him at his school, Aero Haven, if they have any questions or concerns.

Rod Sage offers these words from the student's perspective. "Be patient, be creative, be willing to learn yourself, and fly with a thoughtful instructor who's ready to try new things. Thinking ahead of the airplane is most important. So much of flying is getting out of and staying out of trouble. When you operate with a hand control, you have to pay more attention to not getting into trouble in the first place because your ability to get out of trouble is reduced."

Teaching a disabled student to fly isn't necessarily any more difficult than training an able-bodied student, Smith says, provided the CFI is in tune with the student's needs and is willing to be flexible in solving problems. Rod says learning, or relearning, to fly is a challenge. But, he adds, "being in a wheelchair, you will never do some physical activities as well as the average person. But flying is something at which you can excel."


Founded in 1971, the International Wheelchair Aviators provides assistance to pilots with a variety of disabilities, including paraplegics, amputees, and victims of diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis. The IWA also provides information on obtaining SODAs and assists in finding hand controls and instructors for disabled students. Membership is $15 per year.

For more information, call IWA President Mike Smith at 909/ 585-9663, or visit the IWA Web site at www.dsg.cs.tcd.ie/dsg_people/sloubtin/IWA.html.

For medical questions concerning operating with a disability, you may contact Dr. Richard S. Kaplan via e-mail at: rkaplan@pgh.net. Information on obtaining a Blackwood control is available through Aero Haven. It may be reached at (909) 585-9663, at P.O. Box 2799, Big Bear City, CA, 92314, or by e-mail at aero.haven@bigbear.com.