First known disabled female African American to bag FAA Pilot’s Licence

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A dream deferred is not a dream denied! Leslie Irby knows this firsthand. Last month she persevered to become the first known African American female with a disability to receive a pilots license.

Irby flew her first plane when she was just 16 and declared she would become a pilot just like her idol Bessie Coleman.

“I started flying when I was 16 at my local airport here in Atlanta. There is a program operated through OBAP, called ACE (Aviation Career Enrichment), whose purpose is to introduce aviation to young African American children. In ACE, I flew a Cessna 172. Through that program, I was selected to participate in an elite group of aviators to be a part of a summer flight line program at Falcon Field, in Peachtree city. Through that experience I was able to fly a more streamline aircraft (Diamond 20) and gain more flight hours,” Irby told Because of Them We Can.

Through the program by the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), Irby received the exposure she needed to cement flying as her first love, however seven years after her first flight everything changed.

In 2013, Irby was involved in a head on car collision. There were three people in each car. Two are deceased, two were paralyzed, and two people walked away. Irby was one of two paralyzed.

“After waking up from surgery, doctors informed me and my family that I had sustained an L3 spinal cord injury. I started rehab at Shepard Center, in Atlanta. The first day I was told I would be in a wheelchair, the therapist came in my room and I asked, ‘Do you all have a pink one I can borrow?’ They all laughed, but I knew this wasn’t going to be bad, this was going to be a new start, so why not be myself through it!”

Irby spent a little over a year in and out of the hospital. Through it all, she maintained the perspective that her wheelchair was a blessing, one that ultimately returned her back to her aviation dreams.

“I am an avid traveler. I have visited more countries in my wheelchair than I have able bodied. One day while flying I had the epiphany that I should be the one flying myself to some of these places. ‘Why spend hundreds of dollars on an airline when I can fly myself?’”

That question led Irby to Google adaptable hand controls for airplanes.

“I came across a program called Able Flight. Their mission was to get people with disabilities in the cockpit.”

Leslie Irby inside an aircraft performing preflight checks

Irby viewed the discovery as a sign from God. It was exactly what she needed to get back into the left seat. She applied to the program and within a day learned that she would be granted an interview as a finalist for this year’s scholarship.

“I was selected among nine other aviators to be apart of Able Flight’s 10th anniversary class. We started our flight training at Purdue University on May 18. The aircrafts we flew were sky arrow 600s. It is a light sport aircraft equipped with hand controls for pilots with disabilities. The rudder pedals are controlled by a T-handle. To control the rudders, all the pilot has to do is push the handle forwards or backward.”

Irby and her classmates flew both day and night, all while attending ground school. For seven weeks they lived on campus as students in pursuit of their goal.

“On June 1, I completed my first solo flight. June 28, I passed my check ride and received my official sport pilots license!”

Despite her disability, Irby joins a long lineage of African American female pilots.

“Bessie Coleman was the first African American female to relieve a pilots license. Through conversation and historians, there is not an African American female pilot on record with a disability. This would make me the first!”

As for what’s next, Irby is still aiming high and is planning to pursue her private pilots license. She hopes to serve as an inspiration to others in the same way that Bessie Coleman inspired her.

“My wheelchair is my blessing, I have so much more rockin n’ rollin to do!”

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