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AirVenture Today is published by the Experimental Aircraft Association for EAA AirVenture from July 24 - July 31. It is distributed free on the convention grounds as well as other locations in Oshkosh and surrounding communities. Stories and photos are copyrighted 2005 by AirVenture Today and EAA. Reproduction by any means is prohibited without written consent.

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     Volume 5, Number 7 July 30, 2005     

Sky’s the Limit for Deaf Pilots
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.

Futrell introduced 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 said.

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.

"Ninety-nine point 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 instructions.

"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.

Meanwhile, technological 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 hearing-impaired youngsters.

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 of encouragement.

"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 and

Members of the Deaf Pilots Association pose for a group portrait.
Photo by Gerhard Slacki, Deaf Pilots Association


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