Sky’s the Limit for
By James Wynbrandt
A growing number of
people with disabilities are knocking down barriers keeping them from
becoming pilots. This includes the hearing-impaired, who are now finding
ways to realize their dreams of flight, despite regulations that can
complicate. At a forum sponsored by the Deaf Pilots Association (DPA) on
Thursday afternoon, more than two dozen EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2005
attendees gathered to learn more about how the hearing-impaired can earn
a pilot certificate.
The forum was moderated
by Mel Futrell, an instrument-rated private pilot. Futrell is not
hearing-impaired, but improbably became involved with deaf pilots after
adopting a deaf dog, which gradually drew her into the hearing-impaired
community. A specialist in human factors psychology, she pointed out
that many important figures in the early days of aviation were deaf. For
example, Edson Gallaudet, a kite maker, was recruited by the Wright
brothers to help them build the wing of the Wright Flyer . And
the first pilot to fly across the United States, Calbraith Perry
Rodgers, who made the flight in the Vin Fiz in 1911, was deaf.
A signer translated
Futrell’s words into American Sign Language for those in the audience
who could not hear her or see her lips as she turned back to the
PowerPoint presentation displayed behind her.
With the widespread
adoption of radio communication in aviation, which began in about 1930,
the deaf found the path to the sky increasingly difficult to navigate
due to regulations and attitudes that prevented them from trying to earn
pilot certificates. The FAA rules specify that radio communication is
required for flight into towered airports, those with control towers.
The DPA points out that of the more than 13,000 airports in the United
States, fewer than 700 are towered airports. Deaf pilots can fly in and
out of the more than 12,000 nontowered airports. Moreover, they can fly
into towered airports with a qualified copilot or flight instructor to
handle radio communication. And prior arrangements can be made for a
no-radio arrival, using light signals from the control tower to provide
instructions to the pilot.
Stephen Hopson, a hearing-impaired commercial pilot from Rochester
Hills, Michigan, who is about to begin working on his instrument rating.
Though he can’t hear, the former stockbroker is capable of speech.
"I wanted to fly
since I was 4 years old. No one told me I could," Hopson told the
audience. "My parents told me to forget my dreams."
In 1998, Hopson had what
he called "a spiritual revelation," to quit his job and become
a motivational speaker. Shortly thereafter he had another revelation:
"I found out there were deaf pilots out there. I was shocked,"
Hopson talked about his
experiences as a deaf aviator. He described preparing for a flight back
to his home airport after a fly-in for the deaf, and deciding he wanted
to stop at a controlled airport along the way for breakfast. Before
takeoff, he called the tower at the airport he wanted to land at and
announced, "I’m a deaf pilot, and I’m hungry." He told
them when he would be over the airport, and asked them to use the light
gun to give him landing permission.
nine percent of them are excited. They want a chance to use the light
guns," Hopson said.
After circling the
airport three times, above the airport traffic area, he received the
green light to land. "I had the biggest breakfast you could ever
have!" he told forum attendees. When it came time to depart, he
called the tower, and again they used light signals to issue
"The FAA is becoming
kinder," Hopson said. "They’re slowly opening doors"
for hearing-impaired pilots.
In a Q&A session
after Hopson’s remarks, questions ranged from whether there were any
headsets that fit over hearing aids to why the DPA website wasn’t
updated more often.
changes are also opening up the skies to the hearing impaired. Datalink,
for example, can replace spoken communication with text messaging. And
cochlear implants are restoring hearing to some. The EAA is also
helping, and next year will hold an EAA Air Academy session for
For the hearing-impaired
who already have pilot certificates—perhaps as many as 500, according
to an estimate—a fly-in for deaf pilots has been held every year since
1994. Next year’s event will be held in South Sioux City, Nebraska.
Futrell noted that the
greatest cause of hearing loss is age. And with the aging of the
population, more pilots will join the ranks of the hearing impaired. But
what perhaps stuck most with forum attendees were Hopson’s final words
"If you have a goal,
any desire, there’s no reason why you can’t do it," Hopson
said. "Nothing can stop you."
More information is available at www.deafpilots.org
Members of the Deaf Pilots Association pose
for a group portrait.
Photo by Gerhard Slacki, Deaf Pilots Association