Flight of Hope Part 1: Saying Thank You!

The Flight of Hope was an idea I’ve had ever since I learned how to fly. I wanted to leverage the notoriety of being the first armless pilot for something good. As the freedoms I enjoy as an American with a disability are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act, I couldn’t let the 30th anniversary of that legislation go unnoticed. So, with less than six weeks’ notice, the Flight of Hope was launched.

Finding the Flight of Hope Copilot

One of the first phone calls I made was to my friends at Humanity & Inclusion. Their work and advocacy meant they could help me reach the highest number of people to celebrate this anniversary. Mica, the Director of Communication at HI, was understandably excited and jumped right in to start the process. 

While we were chatting, we discussed whom I could invite to fly with me. We both fondly remembered our meeting with then-Senator Tom Harkin in 2013. After all, I had invited him to fly with me someday.

A Great ADA VIP

Even in retirement, Senator Harkin continues to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. The Harkin Institute runs an annual conference about employing people with disabilities. However, most people with disabilities will remember him as an essential ally in Congress. He pushed the Americans with Disabilities Act through the US Senate for its ratification in 1990.

The Flight of Hope was going to be an excellent opportunity to highlight the ADA’s continued importance. Even more so, it would be the biggest “thank you” I could think of for Senator Harkin.

The Big Day

And then in almost didn’t happen. My husband and I and some new friends were settled in after a three-day race across the country in a motor home. A ferry pilot had flown my airplane, a 1946 Ercoupe 415-C, to Frederick, MD, a few days prior. I then spent four days acclimating to the local airspace.

On the last practice day, we looked at the forecast. After four days of beautiful warm weather, the forecast called for rain all day when I had planned to fly with Senator Harkin. Most people have driven a car in a nasty rainstorm or two, but not all airplanes or pilots can handle those situations. Neither my plane nor I were up for it. Would we have to cancel after traveling all the way across the country?

Thankfully, forecasts are often wrong, or at least in this case, just wrong enough to squeeze in a break in the clouds. I loved the fact that the rain kept the temperatures low, too! So, maybe it was meant to be?

Finding our small break in the clouds, Senator Harkin helped me preflight my Ercoupe (you can call her N26R or “two-six-Romeo”). Senator Harkin is a pilot, so he knows what to help me look for, but he had never been in an Ercoupe before. And ‘coupes like mine are a lot slower than the jets he flew in the Navy. 

Jessica and Senator Harking preflighting the Ercoupe airplane

Pilot Jessica Cox, who was born without arms and uses her feet and toes in place of hands, checks the oil in her Ercoupe with former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, an instrument-rated pilot who promoted the American with Disabilities Act, during a visit to AOPA headquarters to bring attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the ADA, July 24. Photo by David Tulis.

Wheels Up

With our preflight finished, we climbed into the cockpit. Cameras were rolling from local press, including six cameras attached to N26R and my friend Sarah Tuberty following us in a gyrocopter!

I’ll be honest, this was the first time I’ve flown anyone you would call a VIP. I was a little nervous. However, Senator Harkin looked as calm as can be, seemingly ready to enjoy our flight like I was just any other pilot.

With my right foot on the yoke and my left foot on the throttle quadrant, I pushed N26R up to full power, and we raced down the runway. At 65 mph, the tires lifted free of the ground, and we were off!

Jessica about to take off with Senator Harkin on the Flight of Hope

Pilot and motivational speaker Jessica Cox flies an Ercoupe with former Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who promoted the American with Disabilities Act while was in office, during activities to bring attention to the thirtieth anniversary of the bill, in Frederick, Maryland. Photo by David Tulis.

We dodged some small puffs of cloud and returned to land. This was never going to be some sort of record-setting flight. Instead, it was just a casual flight with one of the ADA architects and the first armless pilot. So, I intended to land after only one flight of the pattern. But I landed so hard, I couldn’t let that stand as the memory Senator Harkin would have of the flight.

I throttled back up, and we came back around for another attempt. This time we both celebrated a picture-perfect landing. The Senator exclaimed, “That was fantastic! Talk about greasing it on!” I couldn’t beat that, so we taxied off the runway and back to the small crowd that had gathered to watch.

Jessica, Senator Harkin, and others pose after the Flight of Hope
One Down, Two to Go

The flight itself was probably the most natural part of the entire Flight of Hope. It was also the first of three stops I planned to make on the trip. I will post another couple of blogs in a couple days. We journeyed to the Field of Firsts to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Ercoupe design and then on to First Flight at Kitty Hawk, the birthplace of aviation.

Until then, I wish you blue skies and tailwinds!