‘I Have No Hands or Feet—But I Can Fly’ – A Quadruple Amputee Commercial Pilot Tells His Story
BY ZACHARY ANGLIN
I was born a quadruple amputee, which means that I’m missing both my hands and feet. I’m also adopted and have 18 siblings. My mother has an orphanage in Monrovia, Liberia, but I’m Nigerian. While growing up, I had to adapt very quickly to my surroundings.
My mom told me I didn’t realize I was missing my hands and feet until I was roughly eight years old. The reason was that I had to keep up with my siblings, whether we were climbing a tree on the farm, skateboarding, jumping on a trampoline, or fighting for the last piece of pizza.
Being a pilot was always a dream of mine. My mom traveled a lot when I was a child. I remember my dad driving me to the airport, and me seeing all these big airplanes flying in and out of Minneapolis. I remember thinking: “Oh my gosh, I want to do that.” My dad was an airplane fanatic as well, which inspired me to be a pilot even more.
In my senior year, when I told people that I wanted to be a pilot, they said things along the lines of: “Zack, that’s a little extreme for your condition, why not do something that’s a little bit safer?” My counselor in school advised me to go into law instead, but I refused. I’m a little bit stubborn sometimes, which can be beneficial for me.
In 2017, I applied to five flight schools, and I received an acceptance letter from one of them. Of course, I was filled with joy and excitement. I was raised in Wisconsin but following my acceptance letter, I moved all the way down to Oklahoma towards the beginning of 2018 for flight school.
But I was met with lots of challenges. I failed my medical exam five times because I’m a quadruple amputee. This is where my stubbornness came into play, of course, along with the help of God and my parents to get me through the struggle of it.
I needed an opportunity to show people that I could learn how to fly a plane. After the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) denied me five times, I kept on calling them, to the point where the receptionist at the front desk, who speaks to hundreds of people a day, would say: “Is this Zack?”
She was shocked by the fact that I wasn’t giving up, and because of that, I was finally given an opportunity to take what we call a SODA—a statement of demonstrated ability—which meant that I had to do something different than normal for pilots.
Ordinarily, a pilot would see an aviation doctor and be granted a medical license, but I had to fly all the way to Tulsa, do three hours of training, and then go to Oklahoma City and fly with an FAA Designated Airman just to get my medical license.
On the day, I was very nervous. I remember thinking, “Okay, well, this is it.” If I failed the SODA, I could no longer become a pilot. But I was hopeful because, after five denials, heartbreak, and grit, I finally had the opportunity to show people what I could do.
Thankfully, I passed my SODA. I remember being told: “Congratulations, you’re going to be able to learn how to fly!” I was so happy.
On the day, some FAA employers asked me what my hardest challenge would be as a pilot. I said, “Putting on a tie,” and then their jaws all dropped. But I was just being honest. I don’t know anything different than what I have right now.
To put things lightly, if I were to wake up with hands and feet tomorrow morning, I’d be freaking out; I wouldn’t know what to do.
Once I started flight school, I was finally working on the aircraft and fulfilling my dream. But I still had challenges because I had to work out how to function the plane properly. There are a lot of radios in a plane, along with buttons and switches. We also have rudder pedals and brakes that are on the floor of the aircraft. So, I had to adjust my to a specific position and I had to use a seat pad to get closer to the controls.
My instructor, the chief pilot of the flight school I work for, is a very good guy. He was patient with me and told me we were going to make my dream possible.
In 2019, I was titled the first commercial quadruple amputee pilot in the world. It was such an honor and a true privilege. I’m just happy that I can break that barrier for the next person.
I’m now sending people to take their SODA tests. One gentleman from California was missing his arm and the FAA contacted me and asked me if I can help him get ready for his test, and now he’s a pilot.
It’s cool that I get to instruct people and help them fulfil their dreams.
I’m glad that I can give back because I had a lot of people in my corner helping me through my journey. It was a long process, but it certainly was worth it. I’m glad that I kept on going. I’m very grateful for the gift of perseverance.
Zachary Anglin is a commercial pilot and a pilot instructor.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
As told to Newsweek’s associate editor, Carine Harb.