Jessica Cox might have followed the same checklist other pilots run through before they get in the cockpit as she geared up for a flight at Frederick Municipal Airport, but she did it a little differently. She unscrewed the fuel cap with her feet. She lifted the engine door with her leg and then let it rest on her head to check the machinery.
Cox became the first certified pilot without arms in 2008. Instead of using prosthetics, she uses her feet.
“It was the most incredible thing to overcome my fear because I was terrified of losing contact with the ground,” she said. “And I wanted to become a pilot to conquer the fear, not knowing what kind of world would be opened up to me.”
On Friday, Cox took former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin up in her 1948 Ercoupe to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, of which he was the lead sponsor. They met about eight years ago, and had agreed that they needed to fly together one day, as Harkin is a pilot himself.
The anniversary, which is actually July 26, seemed like a great time to do it, Cox said. She was set to be in College Park in July to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Ercoupe, which used to be manufactured in the area. Harkin suggested they fly out of Frederick for the ADA anniversary flight to work with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA).
“It was fantastic, it was incredible,” Cox said after the flight. “It was such a privilege to be able to take up somebody who made a difference for so many millions of Americans with the work he did while as a senator.”
They took off from the airport around 8 a.m. and flew around Frederick, over a quarry, baseball fields and silos. Cox landed about an hour later, but then decided to do a second landing because she wasn’t happy with the first. She ended the second flight with a “greaser” – a perfect landing.
“It was one of the highlights of my lifetime to be able to fly with Jessica Cox, a young woman who showed there are no limits to what you can do if you set your mind to it,” Harkin said. “She’s been an inspiration, not only to me, but to so many young people with disabilities.”
The ADA was passed in 1990 and prohibits discrimination based on disability. Cox, 37, said she has felt the impact of the act through her lifetime.
“So that’s what today is, celebrating 30 years of that,” Cox said, “but also acknowledging that we still have work to be done. … People with disabilities do not have the [same] opportunities in employment.”
She continues to work toward more equality for disabled people in her role as an ambassador for Humanity and Inclusion. She recently helped lobby in the Senate for an international treaty on disability.
Sen. Harkin has a personal connection with disability as well, growing up with a deaf brother. He loves seeing Cox fly because he sees it as inspiration to people with disabilities everywhere, that they can do things that have been deemed impossible for them.
“I remember [my brother] told me one time, he said, ‘The only thing I know I can’t do is hear. There may be other things I can’t do but I don’t know it until I try it,’” Harkin said.
Cox’s plane, which is bright yellow with a checkerboard stripe running around the sides, is the only plane she can fly. Any other model would require her to make modifications, or customize her aircraft entirely.
pe was built in a time when engineers believed one day all Americans would have a little airplane in their driveway. It was made with relatively simple controls and does not use rudder pedals like most planes do.
Instead, the plane only needs to be controlled using the yoke and the throttle. This allows a pilot to only use two hands – or in Cox’s case, her feet – to control the vehicle.
“So if it wasn’t for this plane, I wouldn’t be a pilot. It’s the only plane in the world that I can fly,” she said. “ … Fred Weick, he designed it in his own garage. And lo and behold it was the most accessible airplane for people with disabilities.”
Cox was able to show the Ercoupe to a Frederick County teenager who was recently paralyzed from the waist down in an accident. Prior, she had been taking flying lessons and was looking forward to getting her license.
When she came to the AOPA on Thursday, Cox showed her the airplane and said, “This is the perfect plane for you.” Cox said she lit up.
“That is something I will never forget, to be able to share that with a local here in Frederick. It made this trip to see that, to see the personal impact of even one person’s life,” said Cox, who flew in from her home in Arizona. “That’s why it’s worth it. That’s why all that long trip to get here was worth it.”
Cox has had her fair share of people doubting her throughout the years, so she knows how young people with disabilities feel. When she was younger, people thought she would never be able to write or type on a keyboard, or play certain sports. She’s gotten used to people not believing in her.
“Doubters are a part of my life, and they’re going to be a part of everyone’s life, and it’s just about really staying strong and not letting those doubters pull you down,” she said. “I had to keep pushing through for days like today when we can show the world that disability does not mean inability.”