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DISABLED PILOTS Amputees Fly Above Their Circumstances

Posted 9 years 243 days ago ago by Admin


After the explosion, U.S. Army soldier Ryan Kelly looked down and didn’t see his leg. At that moment, the missing limb wasn’t his greatest concern. A roadside bomb in Iraq had exploded into his convoy in 2003. Among the carnage, Kelly was losing blood. Staying conscious, he fired against enemy combatants until help arrived. His leg was actually still attached—barely. “There was so little tissue holding my leg on that I didn’t see it because it was hanging at an angle,” explains Kelly. Later that night, doctors at a field hospital saved his life by amputating his right leg below the knee.


Due to advancements in body armor, those serving in combat zones are surviving injuries that would have been fatal 20 years ago. Still, while the majority of body armor protects the head and vital organs, service personnel are suffering traumatic amputations. According to the military, 1,558 U.S personnel received traumatic amputations from 2003 to 2014 while serving in Afghanistan and Iraq. This figure does not include troops and contractors from coalition forces.


Limbs are not all that are being lost. Many times the amputee will not be able to return to their previous job. In Kelly’s case, his father was an Army officer, and the son had grown up wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I was so committed to making a career in the military. My dad was an Army officer; that’s what I was going to do.”  At Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Kelly realized that dream had ended. “Giving up military service, that was so hard.”


However, another inspiration came along to replace that career dream. During his recovery, Kelly met an above-the-knee amputee who was an Air Force pilot. “I was still a patient,” Kelly says. “He came into my room and he was wearing a flight suit. It was a huge motivation for me. I can’t thank him enough for placing that scene in my head. He told me, ‘You can grow into being a pilot out of this injury.’”


Today, Kelly helps save lives as an EMS pilot in Texas for PHI Air Medical, a company that has helped more than 700 members of the U.S. armed forces return to work following their military commitments. David Motzkin, president of PHI Air Medical, expresses the company’s pride in their pilot. “Captain Kelly embodies the values by which our company operates. He has not allowed physical challenges to limit his vision or dictate his future. Instead he has used his superior knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitude to continue on a successful career path of giving back and helping others in need. Captain Kelly personifies what it means to lead by example, and refuses to allow his injuries define him. Rather, through his work, he has defined his persona as an exceptional pilot who is committed to his country, community, and his craft. Captain Ryan Kelly is an extraordinary example of the type of professional PHI is proud to call one of our own.”  


How did Kelly and others with disabilities find their flight path? While flying above a disability can be challenging, it also can be rewarding. Help is available to lift above their circumstance those who want to fly.


Medical certification


For someone that has suffered an amputation or other serious injury, there are extra steps involved to obtain medical certification. Pilots with a qualifying injury need to take a medical flight exam and receive a Statement of Demonstrated Ability (SODA). Potential pilots can start flight training, but they will not be allowed to solo without a medical and student pilot certificate with a SODA.


There are different paths to receiving a medical certificate and SODA. Here’s one way. Go to an aviation medical examiner and receive a flight physical for the desired class of certification. A SODA does not expire and it is issued at the desired class of certification. This means that in some cases it may be in the applicant’s best interest to go for the highest attainable level. For example, if a pilot gets a second-class medical certificate and accompanying SODA, but later in his career he requires a first-class medical certificate, he may have to reapply for another SODA to match the upgraded certificate.


The medical certificate application and other information from the medical examiner may be sent to the FAA Aerospace Medical Certification Division in Oklahoma City. There, a physician determines if the applicant is eligible for a medical certificate and/or SODA. If a medical flight test is required, the FAA will send a letter to the applicant informing him or her that they need to set up an appointment for the test. The FAA Flight Standards District Office will also be notified. The applicant has six months from that letter’s date to set up the appointment. If all goes well, the medical certificate will be issued. It will have a limitation, such as no solo flying without a SODA.


The aims of the medical flight test is to ensure that the pilot can operate the controls of the aircraft and perform the duties authorized by the class of medical certification applied for without endangering public safety. Upon successful completion, the federal air surgeon will issue the SODA to the applicant under FAR 67.401 special issuance of medical certificates. Processing times can range from two to three weeks. After receiving a medical certificate, passing the medical flight test, and being issued a SODA, training is the same as for any other pilot.


Practical advice


There are a number of aviators that have suffered injury that required them to take a medical flight test and be issued a SODA. Reaching out to pilots that went through that process can help. Kyle McNamara is one such student pilot at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. He counsels those entering the certification process to start early. “My amputation is a paper cut; I can't speak for anyone with more severe injuries such as part of an arm or an above-knee amputation. My only piece of advice would be to schedule your special medical flight as early out as practical so it doesn't halt your training.”


Also, everyday activities can prepare one for certification. Kelly says, “Do as many things outside of just flight training to work on your proprioception (one’s own perception of their body parts positioning and movement). Doing everything, from learning to drive a manual transmission car to developing good balance on your prosthetic, will all help in getting you ready to master controlling the helicopter.”


Getting help


Help is available for those with disabilities who want to be involved in aviation. For example, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) gives instruction on the steps to receive a medical certificate and SODA. They help applicants by reviewing their medical records before they are submitted to the FAA. They then periodically check the application while it is being processed.


Another resource is Able Flight, a nonprofit organization founded in 2006 with the mission of helping those with disabilities through flight and aviation career training. They offer four types of scholarships and invite candidates dedicated to changing their lives to apply at ableflight.org . Does the program work? Kelly is one of eight wounded veterans they have so far helped become pilots. Three more veterans are currently training. Able Flight not only helps veterans become pilots, but also others with disabilities find aviation careers.   


If a pilot can perform his duties and control the aircraft safely, there is no reason why he or she should not advance. Networking, joining organizations, and utilizing good training facilities are all ways that both the disabled, and those less challenged, can further their career. For Kelly, all the effort he put into becoming a pilot has liberated him. “It’s a great equalizer,” he says. “Once you’re in the air, regardless of your injury, when you’re controlling the aircraft by yourself it doesn’t matter if you’re in a wheelchair or missing a leg. You’re free. It’s an incredible feeling.”



NOTE - Original reporting by Rotorcraft Pro with some quotes sourced from CBS News report by Lee Woodruff

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