Updated: Sep 10, 2021
By Russell Maynard - CFI/CFII
When we think of pilots, what often comes to mind is a crisp, clean uniform consisting of a white dress shirt emboldened with epaulettes topping off the shoulders. But, what about general aviation pilots? Visit your local airport and take note of the variety of pilots you will see. You’ll see pilots of all ages, race, and gender. They’ll be dressed in shorts, cut off t-shirts, business apparel, and everything in between. The conversations you can have with these individuals are great! A lot of these pilots have a wealth of knowledge related to flying. Some of them are new and still looking to build knowledge and experience, but I bet they all have fascinating stories to tell. Today, I have one of those fascinating story to share with you.
One thing all pilots have in common is their tenacity to learn; to defeat the obstacles laid out in front of them. Learning to fly is difficult, for anyone. As a CFI, I have seen many students drop out when they’re faced with obstacles and adversity. But today, I met an individual who, even when faced with a significant obstacle, overcame it and became not only a pilot, but an experienced and skilled pilot. This man has a private pilot certificate with high performance endorsement, complex endorsement, tail wheel endorsement, and also holds ground instructor certificates. The pilot I’m talking about....is 100% deaf. Yes, you read that correctly. In all my 15 years of flying, I have never encountered a deaf pilot until today. Let me preface this article with how I came about meeting and eventually flying with this unique and inspiring individual.
A few weeks ago, a clerk at my local airport wanted me to email a pilot who had requested information about a checkout in our rental airplane. As I began to question her about the individual, she told me he was deaf. Before I could question her further, I was informed he had a current private pilot certificate, current medical, and a SODA (Statement of Demonstrated Ability). How could this be? Could a deaf person actually pilot an aircraft? I had so many questions!
Through several emails, I learned this individual has accomplished a lot during his flying career, all with what most people consider a “disability.” Ask yourself, what keeps you from working towards mastery in flying. This individual has faced adversity head on. He has probably had other pilots tell him it would be too tough, he wouldn’t be able to fly into places requiring a radio, etc. But, I'm here to tell you, it doesn’t matter. As with anything in life, if you have an obstacle in front of you, find a way through it, around it, over it, or under it. This young man exemplifies that way of thinking, and I couldn’t be more inspired.
Fast forward to the Saturday morning, October 17, 2020. A beautiful, crisp, cool morning here at London-Corbin Airport. This time of year, the trees are painting the most vivid reds, yellows and oranges; the reason for his visit. I had prepared for this checkout, which would also serve as his flight review, with an open mind. I had researched deaf pilots, how they fly, and more particularly, the best ways to communicate once in the airplane. He had already given me great examples of these things...he’s no beginner. Thankfully, his wonderful wife accompanied him to this checkout and made me feel at ease as she was able to interpret what I was saying. I was immediately impressed with his knowledge, positive attitude, and awareness. We had a plan of action for the ground and flight portion, which I had previously sent to Mr. Willis. On the flight, I witnessed and individual no different than any other pilot I have flown with. He was safe and cautious, methodical in his flying, and provided me with a sense of security being in the “passenger seat.” I watched him as he set the aircraft up for slow flight, beautifully transitioning into a power-off stall. His awareness of what the aircraft was doing was a true joy to witness. I could tell he was in tune with this aircraft; one he had never sat in before. He could feel what it was doing and knew exactly what to expect when he made changes. It was inspiring, to say the least, to see this pilot fly the aircraft exactly as it was intended. There was something about the experience that made it pure, almost magical to me.
I have always heard that if you lose one sense, the others become heightened. It was on display directly in front of me during this flight. I had so many takeaways, things I could use and relate to my personal flying and teaching.
This flying experience is one I’ll talk about for a while, and it’s all thanks to a pilot who didn’t give up. If you take anything away from this, let it be that no matter your situation, you can overcome it. You are the writer, director, and actor in your own destiny. Undoubtedly, I would say Mr. Willis faced some negative thoughts and attitudes about his situation while becoming a pilot. It didn’t matter. He overcame all of that and became an excellent and safe pilot.
Ask yourself...what limits you? Will you let something keep you from your goals? Will you make excuses? Or, will you get up and conquer your fears? In a world full of people who give up at the first indication of a challenge, I beg you to be a Kevin Willis.