Monday, September 11, 2006

How I, a Deaf Pilot, Turned an Idea into an Adventure of Lifetime - Part I

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The story I’m about to share with you contains small measures of obstacles due to my deafness and is not related to major adversity. But as you read through the story, watch how I turned an idea into an adventure. It is broken up to 3, perhaps 4 parts.

Deaf pilots have been flying since the late forties. They are not required to use the radio as long as they stay out of "controlled airspace." Out of 12,000 airports in this country, only 700 have control towers, the rest do not. That means deaf pilots can fly in and out of 11,300 airports without the need to use the radio.

Just like when you're driving your car, you watch and avoid other drivers - deaf pilots do the same thing by "seeing and avoiding" other planes when landing, taking off, taxiing for takeoff or flying enroute. Of course, it goes without saying that all of this must be done only under good weather conditions. The "see and avoid" concept goes out the window once the weather turns sour. (That would require a different kind of license and the use of radio - we won't cover that here).

Perhaps you are probably wondering why anyone would want to spend hours in a small aircraft when one could travel much faster in a commercial jet. Well, there’s a big difference between being a pilot in command of an aircraft versus riding as a passive passenger on an airline. Nothing compares to being in control of an airplane hurtling through the sky at 150 miles an hour, several thousand feet in the air. What could be more exciting than having the earth instead of gravel sliding beneath you?

It is nothing like driving a car with signs posted on the roadside. To navigate my way across the sky, I have available to me an aviation map (i.e. aeronautical chart), a GPS as well as other instruments. It is a completely different form of travel, and there are definitely some inconveniences built into it. For instance, you can’t exactly pull over if you run out of gas, nor can you respond to Mother Nature (unless you bring with you a special "flask" designed for such pressing needs!).

So how does a pilot ensure against running out of fuel? Wind factors, length of flight, fuel burn rates are all taken into consideration when planning a trip. Airports along the way are looked into as possible refueling pit stops. Despite the inability to pull over for gas or to go to the bathroom, pilots will find every excuse in the book to fly themselves if weather and other factors permit. It’s a “pilot thing.”

Deaf pilots have it a little more challenging. The weather is constantly changing and because of their inability to communicate on the radio for weather updates, they are supposed to be prepared to make a pre-cautionary landing at an airport along the way if the weather should suddenly change for the worst. If the pilot is unsure of what lies ahead, he would have to land and obtain a weather update on the ground. On the other hand, pilots who can hear may not need to make such landings because they have the option of contacting the weather briefer on the radio for updates and perhaps navigate their way around the weather. They have it easier in comparison.

Shortly after receiving my first pilot’s license in July 2001, I decided to reward myself by renting a new four-seater plane and flying myself from Michigan to Kansas City. The purpose of this trip was to attend an annual deaf pilots’ association fly-in, where pilots from around the world gathered for a week of local sightseeing flights, barbeques, award ceremonies, and comradeship. It was the first time I would be surrounded by deaf pilots, many of whom used sign language as their primary method of communication. Although I never learned sign until I got to college, I was proficient enough with it to communicate with them.

On the morning of my departure, I arrived very early at the airport, a short 20 minute drive from my home in Michigan. At exactly 5 am, I pulled the plane out of the gigantic hangar, packed my luggage and got busy setting things up for the 550 mile cross-country flight. There was a lot to do. The plane had to be inspected, the fuel tanks had to be topped off and the oil checked. Every airport has a weather room where pilots can check up on current and forecasted weather affecting the route of flight. My calculations told me it would take nearly five hours with one fuel stop in Illinois. The weather was forecasted to be clear, with occasional clouds along the way.

It was good to go!

To be continued.........
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