Able Flight and SIU Aviation help student pilots with disabilities find their wings

Able Flight and SIU Aviation help student pilots with disabilities find their wings
Able Flight and SIU Aviation help student pilots with disabilities find their wings

The first SIU Aviation-Able Flight class consists of student Natallia Mirashnichenka in the front row and back row from left are Victoria Mathieu, Miguel Marroquin and David Nelson of SIU Aviation, students Jordan Sprague, Andrew Daigneau and Ian Azeredo and Zachary Martine of SIU Aviation. Not pictured is Able Flight student Jake Simmons.
Photos by Russell Bailey

Ian Azeredo smiled as he talked about his recent successful solo flight and landing at Southern Illinois Airport in a specially modified Vashon Ranger Light Sport aircraft as part of Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s Able Flight program.

Nearly five years earlier, on July 4, 2019, Azeredo was involved in a rapidly worsening and ultimately catastrophic skydiving accident—hitting the ground at 70 miles per hour and bouncing 67 feet—that left him in a coma for two months and hospitalized for nine months. In the recovery and rehabilitation that followed, Azeredo’s determination and taking on challenges in “incremental” steps led him to SIU’s School of Aviation and yet another success.

Azeredo, of Ringwood, New Jersey, recalls his landings with the Vashon Ranger: “You look at that landing and think, ‘Here I am again. This is the situation that almost killed me. Can I do this effectively?’ And I did it! So far, there have been about eight times where I have come back and safely completed an exercise that almost killed me years ago.”

Azeredo is one of five students at SIU Carbondale who have been participating in Able Flight, a national nonprofit program for people with disabilities that allows them to train to become light sport aircraft pilots, since late May. The students received scholarships through Able Flight and live in student housing. Training for Azeredo, Natallia Mirashnichenka, Jake Simmons, Andrew Daigneau and Jordan Sprague is scheduled to be completed this week.

Mirashnichenka, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Belarus who now lives in New York City, competed in the 50-meter butterfly both as a Paralympian and for her women’s swim team at Baruch College. Mirashnichenka, who works in finance, learned about Able Flight when, during a lesson, a private flight instructor told her that she most likely wouldn’t be able to fly a plane.

“Everyone involved in this program that allows us to safely pilot an aircraft is pretty impressive,” she said. “After I started training, I realized how much effort was required to create this opportunity so we can learn to safely pilot an aircraft. The fact that this program is happening is a miracle.”

“I’ve always liked heights, so I’ve tried skydiving before,” Mirashnichenka said, adding that flying a plane is a bit scary “if you’re not used to all the unusual behaviors.” She is currently exploring the possibility of continuing to fly after completing the program.

“It’s very exciting when you start learning how to fly an airplane and see that you can actually do it.”

Jordan Sprague of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a 2023 high school graduate and has a family of pilots. When he learned about the program, he started a private pilot course and learned the basics of flying.

“This is an amazing program, especially for people with disabilities who may not be able to get medical approval from the FAA or have the opportunity to pursue their dream,” he said.

“It’s a very exciting course. It’s allowed me to do things I never thought I would do,” he said. “It’s a feeling when you’re up there that’s just unimaginable. I just love it.”

For Andrew Daigneau of South Bend, Indiana, aviation also runs in the family: His father, uncle and grandfather are all pilots. Daigneau graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a finance degree on May 19 and immediately entered the program.

“I always wanted to fly,” he said. “I always thought it would be more of a hobby than a career for me, as I was interested in business. After my accident, I wasn’t so sure that would happen.”

Daigneau said the experience was “a good perspective change for me because I now see some people with similar conditions who are making it in life and trying to move forward and pursue their goals.”

“It was also encouraging for me. After such an injury, one of the things you have to do is find the balance between striving for more and accepting the world.”

Daigneau added that the pace and progress from learning to fly to being the first student flying solo and feeling confident was achieved in just about three weeks, and he credits the flight instructors for that.

“I know it’s new for the instructors too, dealing with adaptive aircraft and adaptive students,” he said. “It’s been wonderful. They’ve been great. I’ve really enjoyed going through this process with them.”

SIU instructors Victoria Mathieu and Zachary Martine are two of the teachers trained on the adaptive aircraft. Mathieu praised the students for their work, noting that some of them had already flown on their own. Some had a little flying experience, while for others it was an introduction, she said.

“Everyone is on track to finish on time,” said Mathieu.

The adaptive controls in the planes are different from those in a normally equipped private plane, but they have largely the same handling characteristics and reach a top speed of about 100 miles per hour, Martine said. The key is to “fly low and slow and enjoy flying for the sake of flying.”

“The students want to be here,” he said. “They have put in a lot of work and are model students.”

The addition of an Able Flight program at SIU is part of the university’s long-standing support for students with disabilities.

Able Flight considered several factors when evaluating the possibility of a long-term relationship with SIU Aviation, said Charles Stites, who founded the nonprofit in 2006. Able Flight provided two aircraft to SIU in late March for the university to use when it is not teaching Able Flight students.

In addition to the quality of education students receive, the way in which disabled students are received on campus and in the airport’s training facilities also plays a role, he said.

“This program is intense and demanding, not only for our pilots but also for the personnel conducting the training,” he said. “And everything we’ve seen so far indicates that SIU not only provides professional-level training, but also a welcoming and supportive environment.

“It is a testament to SIU that when flexibility was required in developing training plans not typical of a semester-based university program and when students needed alternative accommodations, the flight training staff and university administration proposed good and workable solutions. This was a positive sign of their commitment to bringing people with physical disabilities into aviation.”

Azeredo also praised the instructors for keeping students motivated and “trying to get better, not just adequate.”

“It’s about becoming masters of our craft,” he said. “In the six weeks we’re here, they really trained us to do it, and we become true craftsmen of flying, it’s not just about doing it safely, it’s not just about doing it appropriately. It’s about doing it surgically and intentionally.”

This kind of progress “can only be achieved when a university like SIU opens its doors to people who simply want to have an equal opportunity to prove that they belong in aviation,” Stites said.

The students mentioned the support they have received at the flight facilities and in the community. Mirashnichenka met members of the SIU swim team at practice at the Student Recreation Center.

The instructors and the flight program “really put a lot of effort into this, more than was asked of them,” Azeredo said. “They put a lot of personal time and energy into it, and that speaks to the organization behind it. Everyone we met was really supportive. I came in here not knowing anything about Southern Illinois; I’m just happy with what we saw.”

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