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Can you get your license if you’re profoundly deaf?

By Jack Busenbark

As a deaf pilot I take pride in knowing that I was able to get my pilot’s license, technically called a “certificate” by the FAA. This is in spite of the fact that aviation is largely sound-based: radios are used, stall warning horns go off, and engines make telltale sounds that something might be wrong. So, how can deaf people be safe pilots, then?

Getting my license involved patience, resourcefulness and commitment. While other deaf pilots are able to hear better than I am, I write this to give my perspective as a deaf pilot who relied mainly on writing, gestures and auto-transcribe apps to become a safe pilot. After all, safety is the top priority for all pilots, right?

Are you deaf like me with severe or profound hearing loss and interested in getting your pilot’s license? Or are you a certified flight instructor (CFI) interested in working with a deaf student pilot with severe or profound hearing loss? If you’re either, you’ve come to the right place.

Deaf pilots, including those of us who don’t hear or speak, have proven time and again that they can be safe pilots. In fact, it’s common to get questions about our ability (and legality) to drive! Alas, research has shown that deaf people are less likely to get in car wrecks than hearing people. And research has also shown that deaf people have better peripheral vision by age 15 than hearing people. This makes me wonder if we have a stronger ability to see and avoid other aircraft.

So, what’s the first step?

As with hearing student pilots, the student-CFI relationship is important. If the CFI is eager to broaden their flying experience by working with a deaf student pilot and is willing to make some fairly-easy accommodations while flying, that’s definitely ideal. The key is for the student and CFI to make expectations clear in the beginning.

One of the key expectations is how communication will happen inside the aircraft and out. Oh, we deaf people can all read lips, right? Nope! Research has shown that lip reading is only roughly 30% effective, so for those of us who don’t have the ability to hear it’s pretty much useless. So, what now?

Other than for checkout fights, I’ve had four CFIs over the years training for my private pilot’s license and for my high performance endorsement. Everyone is different, and what worked for one of my CFIs didn’t work for others and vice versa.

An example was my first CFI. She was eager to learn how to fingerspell the alphabet and the numbers 0 through 9, and this worked well in some situations. For other situations we’d use a piece of paper and a pen. For flight lessons she’d have index cards or a small notepad with pre-written notes like: Power on stall; Power off stall; Turns around a point; and Slow flight. If it was time for a turn around a point, for example, I’d point at the object that I chose to do turns around, and the CFI would nod in acknowledgement. Anytime she wanted me to turn right from, say a heading of 180 to a heading of 90, she’d motion her hand (with the palm down) from straight out to right, then point to “9” on the heading indicator. In that same vein, if she wanted me to climb to 4,000 she’d motion her palm-down hand straight out before raising the hand and then point to “4” on the altimeter.

What about unusual attitude recovery training? My second CFI would point down when he was ready for me to put my head down while wearing the instrument-training hood. When it was time for me to recover he’d tap my forearm twice in quick succession, which we agreed in advance meant “recover”.

So far, so good, right? Wait, what about stalls? I’ve had all four of the above CFIs and a few others I’ve had evaluate me for checkouts comment that they watched me recognize the buffeting that comes as a stall nears and then recover appropriately. As some of us know, losing a sense leads humans to compensate in our other senses. Remember what I said about our stronger peripheral vision? It’s certainly possible that we have an enhanced sense of feeling.

Above all, it’s important to embrace the use of basic aviation gestures. The palm-down hand mentioned earlier is an example of what to use to represent the aircraft. Want me to land? Motion the dominant, palm-down hand to “land” on your other palm-up hand which represents the runway. Want me to set flaps for takeoff? Use both your palm-down hands on your sides in a flap-down motion, or point to the Johnson bar/flap lever and then motion up or down. Want me to trim up? Move your hand close to the trim wheel (or crank) and motion for trim-up twice.

And visuals? We love visuals! CFIs should put their model planes to good use when appropriate.

What about ground school? Getting an interpreter can be expensive. While laws exist that require flight schools to provide access such as the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), many flight training programs are small businesses, so the ADA may or may not apply in these cases. This can make the situation somewhat sticky, but there are creative ways around this. A laptop with a keyboard can be used to communicate, if both are able to type reasonably fast. An auto-transcribe app can be used on a phone or tablet, like Google Live Transcribe, and as of early 2022 the technology works well with a high level of accuracy and a small amount of lag.

As some of us know, the majority of midair collisions occur in the traffic pattern. It then becomes incumbent upon the CFI to ensure that we deaf pilots are well aware of the importance of making 90-degree banking turns (instead of, for example, a single continuous 180-degree turn from downwind to final) and observing standard traffic pattern procedures. As my latest CFI, an active Air Transport Pilot (ATP) for a major airline, told me: be predictable. And deaf pilots must always beware of what radio-using pilots sometimes do: they may rely too heavily on the radio that they fail to look out for others in the pattern who may be flying NORDO, either because they’re deaf, or for other reasons (broken radios, wrong frequency, etc.).

This awareness saved me once when I took a somewhat longer left downwind to accommodate an aircraft ahead of me in the pattern; I had spotted another aircraft behind me on my ADS-B display. I then wondered if the aircraft behind me would turn and cut me off not knowing I was there, so I kept a sharp eye out to my left when my ADS-B display was slow to update. Sure enough, as I turned from left base to final, I spotted the other aircraft turning from left base to final in front of me so I abandoned my final approach.

The same awareness can be taught to deaf student pilots on what to feel for in terms of engines running rough as part of the discussion on how to potentially solve these problems.

While I’m a relatively low-time pilot (low 200s hours as of early 2022), there are other deaf pilots with profound hearing loss who have many more hours, and/or gotten their multi-engine and commercial ratings. They have the right attitude towards safety; I’ve flown with some of them and would do it again in a heartbeat. Safety is a realistic and attainable goal for pilots with profound hearing loss; it just takes some education, mindfulness and teamwork between the deaf student pilot and the CFI. And DPA is here to support you. Email them if you have questions or need support with your journey.

Onward to safer skies!

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