The comedian Jack Lemmon once said, “If you have done well, it’s your responsibility to send the elevator back down.”
Those of us lucky enough to be involved in aviation professionally or recreationally are among the luckiest people in the world. We see life through a unique lens and have added another dimension to our perspective. We are able to do things and see things that non-aviators cannot.
Many people in our industry are compelled to share the aviation experience with others for the sheer joy of bringing them into this unique world. Others take it a step farther and reach out to those who, through some unfortunate circumstance, want to be involved but can’t.
Charles Stites is one of those people. Charles has always been passionate about flying and now he gets to share the experience with others whose physical limitations make life’s everyday activities a challenge.
In 2006, Stites, who owns a 1949 Ryan Navion, worked as a writer and photographer for several US and European publications. In one of those British magazines he came across an article that changed his life. It was about a young woman who was severely injured in the London bombings of 2005. A British organization had awarded her a flight training scholarship to “help her put her life back together.” He was fascinated by the story and decided to look for, and write about, an organization doing the same work in the States. But there was none.
“It was just a week later that I actually woke up one morning and realized my life was about to change,” he said. “It all came together in the proverbial instant: with the Sport Pilot Rule, an adapted airplane I had recently heard about, and my contacts in the aviation industry, I was certain I could make this happen.”
The seed was planted.
Swirling in Stites’ head was the idea of creating an organization to offer people with disabilities a unique way of challenging themselves by learning to fly, the byproducts being greater self-confidence and self-reliance.
Within a week of that epiphany, Able Flight was named and incorporated, the first board members were recruited, and he began the very detailed task of completing and submitting the IRS application for nonprofit status and lining up sponsors.
“With that early success I thought everything would start to fall in place and wasn’t prepared for how hard it is to sell an idea, no matter how good that idea. I had a lot of people saying no early on and that was hard, because I knew what Able Flight could become,” he said.
But his persistence and commitment paid off, sponsors and supporters lined up, and Able Flight quickly became Stites’ full time “job.”
Half a decade later, Able Flight is a remarkable success.
“Over the past five years we have seen how profoundly this experience has changed the lives of scholarship recipients,” Stites said. “They have entered aviation programs at colleges and universities, and they have mentored others recently injured and facing the most daunting challenge of their lives.”
One notable example is Able Flight’s second licensed pilot, Sean O’Donnell, a young man from Pennsylvania who is paralyzed due to a motorcycle accident his senior year of high school. Within a week of earning his certificate, O’Donnell bought an adapted-control airplane and opened his own flight school for people with or without disabilities. Able Flight sent him his first students, and by now seven Able Flight scholarship recipients have earned their pilot certificates in his airplane.
O’Donnell is now a member of Able Flight’s Advisory Board and also serves as a mentor to those who learn to fly in his plane.
Those of us who fly are aware of the passion that is prevalent in doing so. But combining that passion with the satisfaction of helping others at the same time brings that feeling to a new level.
“My greatest pleasure is getting a phone call from someone who just soloed for the first time,” said Stites, “and in their voice I hear what it means to have just tasted the freedom that being a pilot can bring.
“Only months earlier I may have first seen them in a wheelchair, or with a prosthetic leg, or dealing with a number of conditions we have come to call disabilities. Within weeks after that solo, they begin to enter hours in that special column in their logbook – ‘pilot in command.’ They have met or exceeded the same standards that any other pilot must meet to pass a check ride and they have proven to themselves and everyone else that they deserve it because they are a person of ability and accomplishment; someone who has demonstrated their commitment and will power to achieve their goal despite their physical challenges.”
The stories surrounding every one of the scholarship winners are heartwarming and inspiring, each one a study of courage, will power, commitment and enthusiasm. There are many lessons to be learned from them. Understanding what these young men and women have to go through to fly teaches those of us not facing those same challenges to rethink our inclination to avoid flying on days that are too hot or too cold to preflight, or other minor inconveniences that we have learned to accept. It really puts things in a different perspective.
One of Able Flight’s goals is to find career and educational pathways for scholarship recipients after they become pilots. To that end Stites created the Career Training Scholarship. “With our support, someone can train for a variety of careers that will allow them to not just change their own lives, but to strengthen aviation as a whole,” said Stites.
Just recently, Able Flight had its first Career Training Scholarship recipient earn his FAA-issued Light Sport Repairman Certificate. He is a former New York City firefighter and 9/11 first responder who has been on medical disability but wanted a way to get off disability and be able to provide for his family. Now he has that opportunity.
Able Flight is now in its second year of a joint flight training program with the Department of Aviation Technology at Purdue University, one of the country’s premiere university-based aviation programs. Able Flight students who attend in the summer experience an intensive flight and ground training program for five weeks while training with university instructors and living in a dorm. “The first year we sent two students and Purdue asked us to send more this year. That’s a program we’ll not only continue, but plan to expand,” Stites said.
Able Flight relies on volunteers from around the country to help with a number of responsibilities, including the in-person interviews of applicants, an important part of the selection process. Able Flight’s chief volunteer is Steve Merritt, a flight instructor, who serves as treasurer. “Steve also works with me to qualify flight schools and training programs to make sure that we can offer the best training to our scholarship recipients,” Stites said.
The organization also relies on a Board of Directors and Board of Advisors, highly experienced aviation professionals who provide expert guidance in all aspects of operating and growing the organization.
Stites is particularly grateful to the many individuals and companies that provide financial and in-kind support to the organization. “Able Flight wouldn’t exist without the people who believe in this unique mission. A good idea is just a good idea unless people get behind it, and that’s why the people and companies who have stepped forward have been essential to our success.
“I never want to miss an opportunity to thank our sponsors who have supported Able Flight every year. They are the foundation we build upon,” Stites said. Those companies include Bombardier, Jet Aviation, Cessna Aircraft, Perrone Aerospace, Landmark Aviation, Universal Weather & Aviation, King Schools, Aircraft Spruce, AirChart Systems and Sennhesier. There are also many individuals who donate amounts from $10 dollars to $1000.
“All of us at Able Flight – scholarship winners and volunteers alike – truly value the support of our sponsors, our board and our advisors, and what they’re contributing to the lives of so many people.” Stites said. “It’s a wonderful legacy.”
For more information on Able Flight, visit www.ableflight.org.