In its more than eight years of existence, the nonprofit charity Able Flight has taught dozens of people with disabilities how to fly, but it is support from the business aviation community, along with dozens of other supporters, that gives the organization the ability to award scholarships for flight training and aviation career training, currently more than 50 and counting.
A mere glance at the “Platinum” sponsors listed by Able Flight on its webpage shows a roll of companies and organizations quite familiar to those in the industry: Jet Aviation, Bombardier, AeroShell, Embraer, Signature Flight Support, Universal Weather & Aviation, Landmark Aviation, Sennheiser, ForeFlight and AOPA.
Able Flight was founded in 2006 by former aviation journalist Charles Stites, who learned of a British organization that sent a woman disabled by a terrorist bomb for flight training so she could “put her life back together.” “I thought I’d write about whoever is doing it here in the States, did my research and found no organization was doing this,” he recalled. “My initial response was, ‘That’s too bad, I missed a good human-interest feature,’ then about a week or so later it just came to me.” Stites realized that under the sport pilot rules, which allow the use of a driver’s license for medical certification, it would be relatively easy to establish such a program here in the U.S.
Within a week he had the organization incorporated and soon was able to attract two corporate sponsors: Jet Aviation and Perrone Aerospace. “With that support we were able to award our first two scholarships only six months after Able Flight was founded.”
At the time, Robert Seidel, a Jet Aviation executive, lent his support at the request of one of the company’s employees, whose father had been involved in flight training for disabled people in Britain and was familiar with the goals of the fledgling organization. Today, Seidel sits on Able Flight’s advisory board and serves as president and CEO of California-based charter provider JFI Jets. He believes the benefits of the program go far beyond simply helping people earn their sport pilot certificates. “The confidence that comes to them…it’s like a switch goes off and they are so proud of having done it,” he said. “I have seen firsthand the profound difference it has made in the lives of folks living with significant disabilities, who have achieved the ‘unimaginable’ mastery of flight, and in those loved ones, friends and acquaintances who have gained a new perspective on the capabilities of the human spirit.”
Wounded Vets Get Priority
Each year Able Flight receives approximately 30 applications and it currently awards around a dozen scholarships a year. A priority is placed on wounded veterans as the organization has pledged to dedicate more than 25 percent of its scholarships to them. Applicants must complete a rigorous application process including writing an essay and submitting personal recommendations. Those selected are enrolled in a six-week, one-to-one program at Purdue University’s department of aviation technology.
he program includes flight training, ground school, books, manuals, test fees, travel and lodging as required. “We work them hard,” Stites told AIN. “Our syllabus is twice the number of hours that the FAA requires.” Since the organization partnered with Purdue University five years ago, all 23 students sent there earned their sport pilot certificates, and its overall training success rate is more than 90 percent.
The students are trained in Italian-manufactured Sky Arrow 600s specially equipped with adapted hand controls, enabling their operation by those without use of their legs. The airplanes are leased by Able Flight (more than 1,100 flight hours so far) and sent to Purdue for use in the program. Along with those, a handful of the adapted-control aircraft are available around the country, and with others in the pipeline, Stites expects that number to reach double digits by next year.
Beyond the flight training, Able Flight has branched out into aviation career training over the past few years, with several candidates currently working toward positions in business aviation, such as schedulers or dispatchers. One wounded veteran has been employed for the past several years as a light sport airplane technician, based on training he received through Able Flight, while another former flight-training student is engaged in an administrative role with one of the airlines. “I think that was a natural outgrowth of our program as we started getting more and more people into flight training,” said Stites. “We had a number of them who said, ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’”
“Able Flight is so much more than an organization that provides scholarships for flight training,” said Robert Stangarone, Embraer’s vice president of corporate communications-North America. “In essence it’s an organization that provides people with disabilities a unique way of challenging themselves by learning to fly. The result is greater self confidence, greater self-reliance and some truly remarkable, inspirational stories.” Indeed, those students engaged in the program range from servicemen who’ve lost limbs due to explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan to a young girl who was paralyzed in a swimming pool accident.
At a reception at its NBAA booth (228) at 4:30 this afternoon, Signature Flight Support will make a presentation to the organization. “The Able Flight award is part of Signature Flight Support’s charitable-giving program whose aim is to bring our mission and values to life by making real and sustainable differences in the industries and communities where we live and work,” said Signature president and CEO Maria Sastre. “This award to Able Flight will allow new pilots to get their wings, a challenge even for those without disabilities.”