Frequently Asked Questions

How can you fly if you cannot hear on the radio?

Airports (and airspace) can be of two kinds: controlled or uncontrolled. Pilots operating at controlled airports or in controlled airspace are required to be in radio contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC). At uncontrolled airports, however, pilots are only encouraged, but not required, to use their radio to directly advise other pilots in the area of their positions and intentions.Thus, deaf pilots are able to fly into and out of uncontrolled airports without using the radio. (Uncontrolled airports are also called non-towered airports.)

What kind of limitations are placed on your pilot certificate?

When issuing a pilot certificate to an otherwise qualified deaf person, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposes a limitation: Not Valid for Flights Requiring the Use of Radio.

Isn’t that a big limitation?

No. You may be surprised to learn that of more than 19,000 landing facilities in the United States, only 512 have control towers. All the other 18,000-plus airports are uncontrolled and accessible to deaf pilots.

If a deaf pilot wants to fly into a controlled airport, he or she can bring along a qualified co-pilot or flight instructor who can handle the necessary radio communications with ATC. Sometimes, special arrangements for a “no-radio arrival” (or departure), using light signals, can be made with the control tower in advance.

How do you know about other planes in the air?

Under Visual Flying Rules (VFR), under which most general aviation flights are conducted, you are responsible for seeing and avoiding other airplanes, and remaining well clear of clouds. As you learn to fly, you will develop a skill for spotting airplanes and adjusting your route of flight as necessary.

If you have a hearing person on board, you can ask that person to monitor the local traffic frequency and pass on position reports made by other aircraft.

If you have a transponder on board, you can turn it on, which causes your plane’s position and altitude to appear on ATC’s radar screens. Then, ATC can inform other aircraft in the area of your whereabouts.

When you land at an uncontrolled airport, how do you know when it is okay to land? What about the other planes landing and taking off?

Again, Visual Flying Rules apply. Each uncontrolled airport has a standard traffic route that you enter at a specific location. By following a sequence of legs along this route, you have several opportunities to see and avoid other aircraft, both in the air, and on the ground, and when there are no aircraft in front of you, you can land.

How do you know which runway to use?

If the airport is deserted, you can fly overhead and look at the windsock next to the runway. The windsock indicates the direction of the wind, and you maneuver to land into the wind on the “active” runway. If there are other airplanes operating at the airport, you can just follow the flow of traffic towards the active runway.

Someone told me that even at uncontrolled airports, there are pilots talking on the radio. What’s the story with that?

Pilots operating at uncontrolled airports are encouraged to transmit their position and intentions on a “CTAF”: Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. However, using the CTAF is not required. There may be several reasons why a pilot may not be using the CTAF: the pilot may be flying an antique airplane that does not have an electrical system to power a radio; the pilot may be on another frequency; the radios may be broken; or the pilot is deaf.

If you have intelligible speech, you can try transmitting your own position reports, thereby advising other pilots operating in the vicinity. A visual radio meter can be built and used so that you know when someone is talking on the radio, and therefore avoid “stepping” on other pilots’ transmissions.

If you have a hearing person on board, you can ask that person to monitor the CTAF and pass on position reports made by other aircraft.

What do you do if you make an emergency landing, or if your plane crashes, and you can’t call on the radio for help?

If you are making a long-distance flight over sparsely populated areas, you can file a flight plan before your departure. Under Visual Flying Rules, the only purpose of your flight plan is to activate search and rescue operations if you fail to appear at your destination within thirty minutes of your estimated arrival time. You can also set your aircraft’s transponder to a special code that alerts ATC to an emergency.

What is the process of getting a medical certificate, if you are deaf?

Every person wanting to become a pilot must submit to a physical examination and apply for a medical certificate. This examination is done locally, by an Aviation Medical Examiner (AME). The AME, upon finding that you are deaf, will defer your application for a medical certificate to the FAA Aeromedical Certification Branch in Oklahoma City for further review.

After 6-8 weeks, you will receive a letter asking you to arrange for a special medical flight test with a local FAA flight examiner. During this medical flight test, you will be asked to demonstrate recognition of imminent stalls and engine failure. If you pass this test, you will receive a “SODA”: Statement of Demonstrated Ability. Once you have this SODA, you can then take the regular private pilot flight test. (Sometimes, the medical flight test and the regular flight test are conducted at the same time.)

How do you talk to your instructor while learning to fly?

You must work out in advance whatever communication method suits you best. Your instructor could write notes on a small clipboard and pass them to you as you fly. You could teach your instructor a few signs, or agree on some gestures for common flight tasks. Your instructor can point to each of the six instruments to indicate what corrections you need to make during your flying lessons. You can schedule additional ground time to go over the lesson plan in detail before flying. Demonstrations by the instructor are a key part of the training, and you can learn by watching a maneuver, and then attempting to do it yourself, under your instructor’s watchful eye.

Is it hard to learn to fly?

Flying is a matter of developing skill, and judgment. The operation of the plane’s controls is quite simple; it is the safe, precise, and consistent performance of a wide variety of flying maneuvers that takes practice and many hours to master. Judgment is developed by experiencing a variety of flying conditions, learning the extent of your skills, and discussing various “go or no-go” scenarios with your instructor and flying friends.

Can you solo?

Yes. As a student pilot, your instructor must give permission for you to fly solo. Once you have your private pilot certificate, you are free to fly solo any time, as long as you operate within the limitations of your certificate.

Isn’t flying dangerous?

As with cars, boats, trains, buses, and other modes of transportation, there is always an element of risk. As the Supreme Court ruled in 1972, “safe” doesn’t mean “risk-free.” You can actively manage the degree of risk by flying only in good weather conditions, remaining alert for other aircraft, keeping your airplane fueled and in good mechanical condition, and repeatedly practicing emergency procedures. To learn more about aviation accident trends and factors, see the AOPA Air Safety Foundation Nall Report.

Isn’t it expensive to fly?

Yes! The cost of obtaining a private pilot certificate can range from $7,000 to $10,000, depending on where you live and how long it takes for you to learn. Training airplanes rent for $80-$130 per hour, and instructors charge $40-60 per hour. The average student pilot practices for about 70 hours, 20 of which are solo, before taking the flight test. Note that the hourly charge for rental airplanes only applies when the engine is running, not for the entire time of your reservation.

To put things into perspective, other people spend as much or more money on golf course memberships, sports-utility vehicles, pleasure boating, or mobile homes. Choosing to fly and to absorb the associated costs has to be a priority that you make in your life.

My opinion? It’s worth every penny!

In this day and age, isn’t there some digital technology that will let you “talk” to Air Traffic Control and fly in instrument conditions?

There are a number of research efforts underway to move towards digital, non-voice, communications. The idea is that all air traffic control instructions, traffic advisories, and weather information will be digitally transmitted to the cockpit. The most promising projects include aeronautical datalink and ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance broadcast). These technologies are currently being tested in commercial jets, and will likely make their way into general aviation aircraft within the next decade.

How can I meet other deaf pilots?

Join the Deaf Pilots Association. DPA represents deaf pilots’ interests with the Federal Aviation Administration, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, the Experimental Aircraft Association, and the National Association of Flight Instructors. Each year, DPA sponsors a week-long fly-in, to which DPA members and their families come from all over to enjoy the fellowship of flight as well as to discuss mutual concerns. A web site about DPA is available at

To join, please visit our membership page for additional information.

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