Man With Limb Difference Overcomes Obstacles To Secure Dream Job As Commercial Airline Pilot

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Growing Up

“I was born without my right hand. There weren’t the detailed ultrasounds we have today, so my parents were unaware of my limb difference until I was born. My mom remembers well the nurse who assured her that her little boy would be able to do anything he wanted to one day. To this day, she remembers her name and recalls the interaction. From day one, my parents never treated me any differently, which ultimately helped me so much.

Man sits in the cockpit of an airplane, resting his arm on the controls.
Courtesy of Eric Gaffney

One story I always tell is about when I used to play baseball. To transfer the glove back and forth between catching and throwing the ball, I would make the catch, toss the ball a few inches in to the air, use my right arm to remove the glove, catch the ball with my left hand, then make the throw. Over time I learned to effortlessly do this maneuver in a very short time. I learned to be quick about it because my dad would try and get the ball back to me before I got the glove back on! In a loving manner, he would try and outpace me in an effort to teach me to be quick enough to play competitively.

I quickly learned I was different from others. I don’t recall the actual time or instance, but it was clear early on that I was unlike any of my classmates. This, fortunately, was not a bad experience for me as I had wonderful teachers and a great group of friends who were very welcoming and supportive. Perhaps a little too supportive at times, though. There were times, especially with newer friends, where they would ‘offer a hand’ (pun intended) where I did not need any help. The help was certainly appreciated, but as a young child with a limb difference you feel the need to prove your independence. Eventually, my friends all knew this and were incredibly encouraging.

Path To Becoming A Pilot

I grew up around aviation. My dad is a mechanic for American Airlines and we used to travel a lot as a family. Because of this, I developed my love of aviation. I always knew I wanted to be a pilot. No one ever really discouraged that dream of mine. When the time came to enroll in classes at the University of Oklahoma, my own doubts crept in and kept me from pursuing aviation. I doubted my ability to handle the controls in a modern airliner. It seemed like a two-handed job and this caused me to initially pursue my other passion — medicine.

I worked as a patient transporter in St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa, OK and decided to start down the pre-med road. It quickly proved to not be the right path. I was set on becoming a pilot, no matter the process. I met with Dave McClurkin, the Chief Flight Instructor at OU at the time, and he sat me in an OU aircraft. Together we worked through the controls. Dave did not sugar coat it; I would have an uphill road ahead of me. He was right! But more than anything he was encouraging and, not long afterwards, I found myself enrolled in flight school. My parents were hesitant, as any protective parent would be, but they, along with my wife, Natalie, were (and still are) my biggest supporters.

Man meeting with OU flight professor shakes hands under the wing of an airplane.
Courtesy of Eric Gaffney

I faced many challenges becoming a pilot. Getting my medical proved to be quite the battle. I faced a total of 6 different restrictions that would need to be removed by undergoing a Medical Flight Test with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). I never let this stop me. I pushed through, received the clearance for each test, and demonstrated my ability. Today, I am restriction free.

Pilot with limb difference crouches down next to little girl missing a hand and takes picture letting her wear his pilot hat.
Courtesy of Eric Gaffney

Representation Matters

Like everyone else in 2020, I found myself home for extended periods of time thanks to COVID. My wife, Natalie, encouraged me to write my book (the original plan was to write an autobiography about my life and career) now that I had the time off. At the time though, my kids were 4 and almost 2. When you have kids this age, you don’t have much free time! Late one evening, I had the idea… I would write a children’s book about a cartoon airplane. The airplane, with one wing shorter than the other, would reflect me and my aviation career. Kids like to have role models and often times these role models are cartoon characters. Children with limb differences do not normally see a character that looks ‘like them.’ Representation matters in so many ways, and for a child with a limb difference to have a character ‘like them’ can mean so much.

Pilot with limb difference stands in front of plane holding up children's book he wrote about his journey.
Courtesy of Eric Gaffney

What is great about the message in my book, ‘Airick Flies High,’ is that you don’t have to have a limb difference to relate to Airick the airplane. We all have something that sets us apart and makes us unique. We all have challenges to overcome, limb difference or not. It is my hope the message found in ‘Airick Flies High’ encourages others to pursue their dreams and to never give up! The sky is the limit!”

Pilot sits in cockpit holding children's book he wrote about cartoon airplane with limb difference.
Courtesy of Eric Gaffney

This story was submitted to Love What Matters  by Eric Gaffney. You can follow his journey on Instagram and purchase his children’s book here. Submit your own story here.

Read more stories about limb differences:

‘Here he comes,’ my OB said. The entire room fell into an ear-piercing silence. ‘Are you aware your son has abnormalities?’: Young mom celebrates ‘one in a million’ son born with limb differences

‘As my daughter studied Cinderella, I wondered why there were still no princesses who looked like I did.’: Limb difference advocate embraces unique beauty cosplaying princesses

‘Your baby’s left hand is missing.’: Mom shares discovering son’s limb difference, power of support community

‘I honestly thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.’: Mom of daughter with limb difference shares acceptance journey, support community

‘My little girl would be born without her left hand.’: Mom shares acceptance of daughter’s limb difference, building local support community

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