Sam Mahoney didn’t think he would be able to fly after he accidentally fell off a roof.
The 31-year-old from Wisconsin lost the ability to use his legs. His grandpa, a lover of aviation and airplane mechanic during World War II, inspired him to take to the skies.
Now, he's a student in the Able Flight program at Purdue.
“I went flying with a friend one day and fell in love with it," Mahoney said. "I looked into disable flying and I found out about Able Flight online. I put in my application and found out I was accepted after two months."
Now Mahoney is a "check ride" away from receiving his FAA light sport pilot license.
“The check ride consists of ground school testing, proficiency in flying the aircraft and proficiency in landing," he said. "Ground school by far was the most difficult; it left my head spinning.”
Mahoney plans to continue flying after Able Flight concludes. He has even looked into buying an Ercoupe plane that is already equipped for pilots with disabilities.
“Flying gives me a feeling of freedom. I shouldn’t say freedom because you still have a lot of work to do and you still have to check in," he said. "But to go someplace fast and do it from the air and to have the speed behind you, to be able to fly, it's pretty great."
The Able Flight program took off for its 11th consecutive year of training individuals with disabilities beginning in mid-May. Participants began their ground school before flight training with instructors to get their certified sports pilot licenses at the end of the summer.
The Able Flight Program’s eight participants come from a variety of backgrounds, according to Purdue, including a former U.S Army Blackhawk helicopter pilot and the 2015 winner of Ms. Wheelchair Georgia. Each pilot in training receives a scholarship that covers his or her education and lodging. So far, Purdue has graduated over 30 Able Flight trainees.
Students train and fly in two types of planes: the Skyarrow L600 and the Ercoupe 415-C. Both planes are light, sport aircraft and are easily adaptable for flight students with physical disabilities.
Once students are finished with their online school and testing, they will take part in intensive flight training with instructors and eventually complete a solo flight at the end of the six-week program.
The program has expanded to Ohio State University, which has been participating in the Able Flight program for three years. Graduates of the program have gone on to pursue jobs in aviation and at the Federal Aviation Administration, with some going as far as to become commercial airline pilots.
Bernard Wulle, associate professor in aviation technology and coordinator of Purdue’s Able Flight program, hopes the program will continue to expand to other universities.
“The program helps people see past what they can’t do and a little bit more of what they can do," he said. "I want them to realize that this industry is wide open and could use people with physical disabilities, too.”
Able Flight students are scheduled to graduate on July 10. The Able Flight Wing pinning ceremony will be at the EAA AirVenture Flight Show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.