Armless pilot gives students a look at first foot-controlled plane: ‘Disability does not mean inability’

‘The Impossible Airplane’ would be flown using a foot-operated control panel installed on the floor.

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Jessica Cox, the first licensed armless pilot, gave students at AeroStar Avion Institute a demonstration of the first foot-controlled airplane July 19, 2023.

Jessica Cox, the first licensed pilot without arms, gives a demonstration to students at AeroStar Avion Institute in Chicago. The school gives students from disadvantaged communities the chance to explore careers in aviation and engineering.

Cindy Hernandez/Sun-Times

If given the choice between having arms or not having arms, pilot Jessica Cox says she would choose to live without them.

Cox was born without arms, but that hasn’t stopped her from accomplishing her dream of flying an airplane.

“I wouldn’t want the arms because of the people I’ve been able to meet and the experiences I’ve been able to have,” Cox said.

Cox, 40, the world’s first licensed pilot without arms, learned to fly a plane by using her feet where other pilots used their hands.

Cox, who lives in Arizona, recently gave students at Chicago’s AeroStar Avion Institute a look at what could be the first foot-controlled plane to fly around the world.

Dubbed “the Impossible Airplane,” it would be flown using a control panel built into the floor to allow pilots to fly using only their feet.

The plane — expected to be finished in 2025 — is being built by a team of volunteers with the Experimental Aircraft Association in Toms River, New Jersey, who hope to make Cox’s dream a reality.

Though Cox could have used prosthetic arms, she says she never felt connected to them and stopped using them at 14. She instead learned to use her feet to accomplish all of her daily tasks.

Learning to use her feet has led her to accomplish many goals, including driving a car and achieving a black belt in Taekwondo. Flying was another goal.

“I was terrified of flying and wanted to overcome my fear of it,” she said.

Jessica Cox in her 1946 ERCO 415-C Ercoupe.

Jessica Cox at the controls of her 1946 ERCO 415-C Ercoupe, which she operates with her feet.

Provided

When she decided to study to become a pilot, Cox said there wasn’t anyone who told her “no,” but there were people who wondered if she would be able to fly on her own.

“The aviation community was very welcoming,” she said. “There wasn’t any pushback, but there were a lot of questions. There were people who questioned if I would be able to fly solo, and that was disheartening.”

Cox said meeting other pilots with disabilities gave her a boost of confidence to continue her training. She’s been flying since 2008.

Though she’s able to operate aircraft with standard hand controls, she said her dream is to fly a plane built with her disability in mind.

Students at AeroStar Avion Institute participated in a simulation of the first foot-controlled plane.

Students at AeroStar Avion Institute participate in a simulation of the first foot-controlled plane.

Cindy Hernandez/Sun-Times

“Do you know how special it feels to have something made just for you? This world is not always built with people with disabilities in mind,” Cox said.

“Disability does not mean inability,” she told the students.

Students were able to participate in a simulation that allowed them to fly a plane using a model of the foot-controlled panel.

“This is groundbreaking,” said AeroStar founder and CEO Tammera Holmes.

Holmes said she created AeroStar, which holds classes at Olive-Harvey College, to give youths from disadvantaged communities opportunities to explore careers in aviation and engineering.

Allowing students to see people like Cox do what was once thought to be impossible lets them know they can accomplish their own goals, Holmes said.

Cox said the Impossible Airplane has the potential to impact many people and could make the world accessible for those with other disabilities.

“The kids at AeroStar are one of the first to get a look at the plane, and it was so shocking hearing how inspired they were at the end,” Cox said. “If it had this reaction here, there’s no telling how many more people we can inspire.”

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