By Charles Stites-Executive Director of Able Flight
Able Flight has been called a lot of things since I founded it in 2006, but perhaps my favorite came from one of our pilots when he anointed this unique aviation nonprofit as the “little engine that could”. In its first five years Able Flight has kept its focus on its mission with dogged determination and single-mindedness. We set out to use aviation to change the lives of people with physical disabilities, and through them, to change the lives and perceptions of others. And that we have done.
Six months after Able Flight went from idea to reality we awarded our first two scholarships, and six months later I watched Brad Jones’ parents crying tears of joy when their son taxied in from his FAA check ride as a newly-licensed pilot. People pass check rides every day, so what made this one so special? Because only a year earlier, at almost the same time Able Flight was born, Brad’ parents were called to a hospital where they saw him in an emergency room and heard the word “paralyzed”.
On the day Brad became a pilot, he proved something special to himself and everyone that knows him or has heard his story. Since then there have been other remarkable stories of people overcoming daunting challenges; a young woman born without arms who became a pilot flying with her feet, and a young man who is a quadriplegic, and yet still holds the Able Flight record for earning his license in the fewest hours.
There have been wounded veterans, people born with congenital birth defects, and those who must deal with the effects of a devastating illness or injury. Now they share something that makes them unique in aviation. They have a set of wings with the letters “AF” in the center. Only those Able Flight scholars who have earned their pilot’s license get to wear these wings; not me, nor our largest donor. And that’s the way it should be, because our pilots are the heart and soul of Able Flight.
We succeed in fulfilling our mission because we believe in people who believe in themselves and are willing to do what it takes to prove their abilities. I sometimes wonder what they think the first time they leave a wheelchair behind, or slip a prosthetic leg over the canopy rail and they manage to get into the cockpit of an airplane for the first time. They are beginning a new journey that most could have never imagined. I can’t know their every emotion, because I haven’t experienced the challenges they face every day; but of this I’m certain, they experience the joy that only freedom can bring, and joy is a wonderful thing.
I applaud each of their flight instructors for sharing their knowledge, and each sponsor and person who donates, because they have become partners in changing lives. I hope I never miss an opportunity to thank them, and to remind them of what a wonderful legacy they leave in every Able Flight pilot.
If you’d like to help a dream come true, visit Able Flight.