Deaf pilot flying to her dream at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A seven-week scholarship program is giving people with disabilities the chance to get into the pilot seat of an airplane. Able Flight funds pilot lessons for the deaf and people in wheelchairs.

It's the ninth year the program has taken place at the Purdue University Airport. According to instructors of the program, the university is one of two aviation programs to run the lessons. The other is at Ohio State University.

Two students are in a wheelchair and two are deaf. In July, they'll all have the chance to take their test to earn a pilot license.

One student this summer is Julia Velasquez.

“Ever since I was little, I have always been fascinated by the sky," said Velasquez through an interpreter. "I’ve always wanted to fly."

The California native said she'd go to airshows at a U.S. Navy airbase which got her hooked. She's even won the chance to participate in a Mars habitat simulation as part of a science-based TV network.

Her big dream is to become the first deaf astronaut. Obtaining a pilot license is a step to her dream.

She has become an advocate for the Deaf, DeafBlind, DeafDisabled, Heard of Hearing, and Late-Deafened (DDBDDHHLD) communities. She would like to see the aviation industry do more to allow those people to pilot planes.

According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, there are more than 200 deaf pilots in the United States.

Velasquez wants her license to show it can be done.

"I think it would be a huge moment for our community because we have faced so many years of stigmatizing, saying deaf people can’t do so many things," she said.

The Federal Aviation Administration has an entire section dedicated to deaf pilots. It reports deaf pilots have a limitation put on their certificates that says the pilot can't perform flights that require radio communications.

There are five pilot certifications a member of the deaf community can earn. The FAA adds that number could change with improvements to technology.

"We can do the same things as everybody else," said Velasquez. "We want to be equal. We want to come up with creative solutions to make it work."

There's already some creativity at the lessons. The instructors aren't trained in translating the signed and spoken word, but they're learning on the job.

“I didn’t know any sign language when I first met Julia," said instructor Andrea Hynek, who is entering her senior year at Purdue and earned her flight instructor license last summer. "I wanted to communicate with her as best as I can, so I learned the [alphabet] and that helps a lot."

The instructor said she's spelled out several words so many times that now Velasquez has given her the sign for it. So, there are some words Hynek can now use.

The instructor will sign to her student up in the air or write down instructions, which takes longer and may cause issues if the duo is in a crunch for time.

“There’s a lot of teamwork," Velasquez said. "A lot of communication."

The pair has even had a scary moment together. Last month, on the second day of lessons, the engine died while in the air. It wouldn't restart.

"We took off and the plane was acting perfectly normal," said Velasquez. “The propeller stopped. It just stopped and I was like, "what is happening" and we looked at each other."

As the instructor, Hynek took over and glided the plane down into a field. Her student even commented that the landing was smoother than some landings on a runway.

Neither passenger was hurt and the plane had no significant damage. It was even used during Friday's lesson.

Hynek said she had never had to make an emergency landing and was surprised to see her student eager to get back in the pilot's seat.

“My heart was thumping," Velasquez said. "I was nervous. It was really a challenge getting back in."

Velasquez said along with pursuing her dream of being an astronaut, she would like to work to get more deaf pilots their license.

Velasquez and the other students in the program will be honored at an airshow in Wisconsin next month.