Sky high and in control: piloting a plane without arms
Jessica Cox holds the Guinness World Record for being the first armless person in aviation history to earn a pilot’s certificate. She sees her disability as a blessing and hopes that her story will inspire others to realise their dreams. We caught up with her to discover more of her incredible story.
Recognised internationally as an inspirational keynote speaker and author, Jessica Cox, 32, was born and raised in the city of Sierra Vista, Arizona. She was born without arms and has learned to live a full and exciting life with the use of just her feet. She has, in fact, achieved many things in life that most people only dream of.
In addition to holding a pilot’s licence, Jessica has a degree in psychology from the University of Arizona, has a third degree black belt in Taekwondo and is a certified scuba diver. She drives a car, continues to enjoy surfing (which she learned to do whilst on holiday in Hawaii) and once did a sky dive.
You have obviously been a determined person from an early age Jessica?
Yes I have. When I was young my father said that he never shed a tear about my birth condition because he always had confidence in my potential. When I was growing up I came to realise that the way I carried myself and how confident I was determined how people reacted towards my disability.
My Taekwondo teacher told my parents that I would be more than physically able to do the sport and that only my attitude could hold me back. It’s so important that disabled people are given the same opportunities as non-disabled people because you never know what someone can achieve without giving them a chance.
So, tell us more about your passion for flying and how you gained your pilot’s certificate?
An organisation called Wright Flight offered me the opportunity to experience my first time in a plane. At first I was afraid to go because of losing contact with the ground, but once in the air I felt empowered and wanted to get my feet on the controls. I was lucky enough to gain a scholarship through Able Flight, a non-profit organisation that helps people with disabilities to literally ‘spread their wings’, and with this support I learned to fly. It took three States, four airplanes and two flight instructors to find the right aircraft for me, but finally a 75 year old Ercoupe airplane helped me gain my pilot’s certificate 3 years later.
It is an incredible achievement. Were there any challenges along the way?
The basic task of putting on my seatbelt was a challenge. so I had to figure out the best way to do it. I closed the seat belt first then slid my body into position. Next it was putting on the headset! Overall, the training was intense, but worth it because flying gives me a tremendous sense of independence.
For over 10 years Jessica has worked as an inspirational keynote speaker, travelling to 20 countries including Greece, Australia, Kenya, Ghana, Mexico, Canada, Sri Lanka and Malaysia. In her speeches she talks about her passions, desires, persistence and courage and what motivates her to keep on achieving what she wants from life.
Jessica, how has your journey as a motivational speaker helped others?
I have always seen my disability as a true blessing and I remain convinced that the way we think has a greater impact on our lives than our physical constraints. When travelling through developing countries I heard lots of stories about people with disabilities and the struggles they faced with social acceptance and the way others reacted to them. By being able to show people what I have achieved with my disability, I have hopefully helped change perceptions and shown that barriers can be overcome to reach your goals, not matter what the challenges may be.
Jessica’s story is being spread further through a documentary film dedicated to her called Right Footed. Directed by Nick Spark, the film premiered in June 2015 at the Mirabile Dictu Film Festival in Vatican City, Rome and won the prize for best documentary. It follows her life story and roles as motivational speaker, mentor to families with children with disabilities and advocate for disability rights and Jessica hopes that it will be developed for TV in the future. Ideally she would love it to be shown in the UK.
With her famous trademark motto ‘Think outside the shoe’ Jessica also tells her own story in her new book Disarm Your Limits. It’s available now on Amazon and gives guidance and insight into how to develop a personal formula for success in life.
Jessica, what are you future plans and what advice would you give to would-be pilots?
I hope to do a cross-country flight soon covering three different states in America which would be fantastic. I encourage anyone who has the opportunity to learn how to fly to do it. My top tips for becoming a successful pilot are: to be driven by your desire be persistent and don’t give up. You need to have courage and a good support network around you and above all you need to enjoy the journey, however long it takes. Disability doesn’t mean inability, just believe in yourself.
Interview by Zubee Kibria and edited by Jane Smith
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