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The Incredible Story Of The First Quadriplegic Man That Became A Pilot

Courtesy Jennifer Pickering

An experienced pilot Pat Patterson met a young man in the wheelchair at Medford, Oregon on July 28, 1976, who was looking for flying lessons. Mike Henderson, a quadriplegic, didn’t seem like a right person for a safe airplane maneuver, as the doctors stated that he had less than 10 percent of body movement.

Patterson thought it was impossible to teach this young man to fly, but wanted to give him a shot to show how far he was ready to go for the goal he was aiming for. He then gave Henderson the first challenge in his world of flying. ” Perhaps I can teach you,” he said. “But under Federal Aviation Regulations, you have to be able to get in and out by yourself. I’m going to get a cup of coffee. If you’re in by the time I get back, we’ll start.”

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Mike Henderson’s first concern was if he could handle the controls with his poor hands and arms movement. But when his soon-to-be instructor assigned this very first task, Henderson realized that getting into the cockpit of Piper Cherokee could be as difficult as flying the airplane.

This young man already defied all odds and learned to drive, built and raced a high-speed dragster and floated in an inner tube down the Colorado River. He couldn’t let this single task stop him from achieving his dreams.

Piper Cherokee was standing in front of him. He anchored his wheelchair beside the plane, placed one hand on the wing, with the other hand holding his chair, and thrust himself up as far as his strength let him. Then he rolled towards the body of the airplane and began dragging his dead weight to the cockpit. It took him 45 minutes to get inside the aircraft, but Mike showed what this meant to him.

After he saw how strong his determination was, Patterson decided to take him as his pupil. “ He groveled his way up that wing!” he said, “ When I saw him go through that much pain, I knew nothing could stop him”.

From that day on, the instructor and the student solved together each problem that arose. During the following months, Henderson performed guided takeoffs and landings and experienced the biggest thrill he had ever felt: he flew the airplane a thousand feet in the sky – and all by himself! Henderson commented after it: ” It’s a time in your life you really take total responsibility for what’s going to happen to you. And I could do it!”

Shortly, with the help of Dr. Stoddard from FAA, Mike Henderson achieved to be the first quadriplegic to hold a commercial pilot’s license. His instructor and Dr. Stoddard were touched by this young man’s will to defy all odds to become a pilot. He showed how powerful one’s motivation can be and how it can help literally anyone reach their highest accomplishments.

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