Training pilots with disabilities

Training Pilots with Disabilities

Steve Varden writes

This article is meant to stimulate thought and provoke discussion with regard to the training of pilots who may just happen to be disabled in some way. This time we will look at the training of pilots who may just happen to be disabled in some way. To some people ‘flying for the disabled’ may seem like a pretty crazy idea but ask yourself: “Why not?”

So how do we go about training pilots with disabilities?

Fortunately there is a very simple answer to this question: “We just get on and do it!” In order to understand this kind of philosophy let’s look at how schools operate and how they could implement some kind of provision for the training of disabled pilots.

Ask the average pilot why schools exist and he/she will probably say that they are only there to make loads of dosh. If you look back at your training, did they really make that much money out of you? They ferried you around to different sites, kept you amused during un-flyable conditions and only charged you for the days in which you flew. You broke a few uprights, dragged their canopies through bushes, drank all their coffee and didn’t even buy a glider from them.

I greatly admire schools for the work that they do and the sacrifices that their instructors make on those super XC days. If it were not for them many of us would not be flying at all. So why do they do it? They do it for job satisfaction of course! They have a passion for the sport and want to share it with others. There is nothing that gives an instructor greater pleasure than seeing their students do well in their flying (well, during the working day anyway).

My opinion is that if schools were to teach disabled students to fly then the increased job satisfaction alone would be reason enough to offer such opportunities. A bonus to this is that the instructors would be learning about disability and developing new training techniques that could be of benefit to the school and all their students.

So what types of disability are suited to hang gliding and paragliding?

There is no definitive answer to this question; you cannot really categorise people by their disability. Everyone is an individual with different personalities, skills and abilities. It is only by considering these traits that a more informed judgement can be made. Having said this, the sometimes stressful and mentally demanding nature of our sport may rule out a large number of individuals. Naturally safety issues must always be paramount and therefore certain disabilities may prove to be incompatable with our sport.

Ask an instructor what the best indication is of a student’s potential as a pilot and he/she will say something like: “Motivation, attitude and dedication”. They probably won’t even mention physical ability or agility at all.

So your school has decided to offer training opportunities for disabled students.

Well, the first concern that you may have is that you are going to be overwhelmed by disabled students! There is absolutely no evidence to support this claim and the exact opposite will probably be more true. Rather than have a couple of specialist schools in the country that offer such opportunities I would much prefer to see every school consider it’s strengths and resources in offering opportunities to disabled people.

What about the extra work and costs involved in teaching people with disabilities?

It is true that some instructors may have to work harder when teaching disabled pilots to fly, but who’s afraid of hard work? It could be that a disabled student has better perception than other students and thus needs fewer flights to achieve the required standard. If a disabled student requires extra support regarding mobility etc. he/she will generally bring along some assistance to overcome such problems.

On the issue of the extra costs that may or may not be incurred, a school may well be able to apply for grants to cover the extra costs or even the whole of the disabled students’ fees. Grants may also be available to help improve a school’s access or equipment range.

You may think that the stresses and strains of offering the kind of opportunities that we are talking about overwhelm the rewards and benefits. If this is the case then maybe you or your school is not best suited to offering them. If you do not want to be involved in such a project then maybe you are the wrong person for the job anyway. However my advice to you is, that you should give it a go before making up your mind to the contrary. The subsequent rewards for schools could be extraordinary and varied!

What about specialist training equipment?

4WD vehicles, quad bikes and ‘wheeled bogeys’ are useful bits of kit for any school. My personal opinion is that we should minimise the amount of specialist equipment and adaptions that we employ. Again you cannot generalise about the types of equipment that may be needed. It would be very easy to spend lots of money developing, constructing and adapting equipment that may only be suitable for use by one or two individuals. In order not to incur problems with C of A’s we should try and work with standard production gliders as much as possible. There is a little more lee-way when it comes to harnesses, flying positions, launch techniques, etc.

Disabled people are generally very aware of their disabilities and abilities. If you explain to them what is involved in training as a hang glider or paraglider pilot they will have a fair idea whether or not they will be able to handle difficult situations physically and mentally. If problems and difficulties are highlighted then maybe these can be overcome through discussion or by using low tech solutions. There is no doubt that the Instructor is the best person to assess an individual’s ability and aptitude as a pilot. However, the individual will have a much better idea of what they can cope with in a physical sense.

Hill or Tow, which is best?

I learnt to fly at a hill school, however, a couple of years ago I would have said: “Towing has to be the easiest way of teaching disabled pilots to fly”. That was until I went to South Peaks Airsports to try and get my tow endorsement. I had five ‘lock-outs’ in six tows! Ironically towing is not for me (at the moment) but I am convinced that towing and aero-towing has a lot to offer the disabled pilots of the future. The hill schools also have much to offer with their top drive sites and ‘inspirational’ flying environments. So again, the best advice for the disabled person is to consider both and to decide for themselves which is best suited to them.

Integration with other students?

Some schools may be tempted to run specialised courses for people with disabilities who wish to become pilots. Although this idea may be more practicable I would much prefer to see all courses open to everyone. Some schools may be worried about the reactions of able-bodied students in a ‘mixed’ course. From my experience this kind of integration will have an overwhelming positive effect on a course from which everyone will benefit. One in ten of this country’s population is disabled in some way; one in fifty is severely disabled. It is un-natural not to have one or two disabled people in a group of ten people.

I would like to wager that every school in the country has already taught a disabled pilot to fly – Congratulations! You were probably not aware of it at the time as you did not consider the individual to be disabled, probably because they coped so well with the training. This is my whole point and illustrates how easy it can be to offer such worthwhile opportunities. The next time you get an enquiry from someone who announces that they have a disability, do not turn them away bluntly and say: “We don’t do anything like that!” Give them a chance and meet them, let them come and see the school, the way that you operate and discuss what’s involved in training as a pilot. It’s simple, just get on and do it. You never know you may even learn something along the way – if you’re open minded enough!