Able Flight teaches flight, life lessons

It has been a month of discovery, camaraderie and flight. It also has been a month of proving that a physical limitation can be overcome with the right tools.

In its second year on the Purdue University campus, Able Flight has brought four college students to campus to learn to fly. Each has a physical disability that, until now, has precluded them from pursuing an interest or career in aviation. With the help of special aircraft and scholarships from Able Flight, these four students will have light sport pilot certificates after an intensive five-week training period.

“These students are learning in one month what Purdue flight students take five to six months to learn,” said Geoff Aschenberger, an aviation technology graduate student assisting with the program.

Because of the compact schedule, the students and flight instructors spend most of their days at the airport in the classroom and in their specially designed aircraft. An average day includes an early morning arrival, 90 minutes of flying, discussion, more flying and landings, lunch, even more flying and ground school lessons. They do have time for social time as well. The students live in First Street Towers, a university-owned residence hall.

While the Able Flight students are learning to fly, the flight instructors are learning new ways of teaching and about overcoming adversity. “I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I thought it would be a challenge for me and a challenge to my teaching abilities,” said Derek Stewart, a Purdue flight student and certified flight instructor. “Even within the first two weeks, I was able to see them grow as people and as pilots.”

Aschenberger initially was interested in the program to collect data for this master’s thesis. He wanted to look at ways to improve safety for persons with disabilities during aviation emergencies. He’s found much more than information during this time. “They’ve had a profound effect on my life. They’re doing more than I thought they could. I only regret I can’t do this every year. This is very rewarding academically and spiritually,” he said.

Each of the Able Flight students comes to the program with different experiences and expectations. They all have enjoyed the thrill of flight.

“The most exciting thing is taking the controls, knowing you are holding someone’s life in your hands,” said Jermaine Strachan, an Iraq War veteran who has received two Purple Hearts for combat injuries.

Two weeks into the program, all four also identified their biggest challenges in the program, and none are related to their disabilities. Korel Cudmore, who is deaf, thought the biggest challenge was the amount of information they had to cover during the five-week stay. Similarly, Strachan found it most difficult to learn and retain information day-to-day. Kevin Crombie, who wants to pursue a career in air traffic control, said, “the biggest challenge is visually locating other aircraft in the air.” And Eric Ingram, who performed 40 landings during one training day, was challenged by the difficulty of landing the airplane.

Bernie Wulle, associate professor of aviation technology and coordinator of the Able Flight program at Purdue, is struck by the nature of conversations the students share with each other and their instructors. “Their discussions are the same you hear from any of our student pilots,” he said. “The only difference is that we have to figure out a way around one of their limitations.” The program concludes June 26. The students will receive their wings during a special ceremony at the EAA AirVenture Convention in Oshkosh, Wisc., in July.