Written June 2010

Really Flying Blind


Alan Paganelli

Yes, I really did learn to fly. I can also prove every dime I spent on flying lessons. I kept every receipt for each hour I paid for and every entry in my log book is signed by John Dunn and his CFI certification license number making it perfectly legal. I had close to 40 hours or about enough for a private pilotís license. We even discussed going to court but decided that it would be a waste of good money. I'd be crazy to fly with any body other than a pilot. So technically, I'm flying under his license so in the end we would be going to court to argue over a piece of paper. Somebody else wanted me to give the information to the Guinness world book of records as the first totally blind man to learn to fly but I don't care about that. I did it because it was what I wanted to do and not for anything else and was willing to put my money where my mouth is. Anyway, here's my story.

Back in the mid 70's I was playing at a local restaurant. They swapped out musicians from time to time and we all came to know each other pretty well. At one time or another, we all played at all of the local establishments. One night I had a night off and went to listen to a new musician at one of the places I regularly worked at. They had a woman playing and she was pretty good. When she took a break we sat and visited talking about the job. She asked me what kind of music the people liked here and I told her. During our conversation she mentioned that she was tired that night because she had just flown into the local airport shortly before she came to work. I knew that the airport only had small aircraft housed there and asked her about it. She said that she was a pilot. I began asking her questions about flying. She said that her husband knew more about the subject than she did and then invited me to their home to meet him and talk about it. I took her up on her offer and her husband was a really great fellow. Come to think of it, some 28 years later give or take he still is but I digress here.

As we discussed flying he put it to me, if I can talk one of the certified flying instructors into it would you be willing to put your money down on the table to find out what it was all about? We discussed how much it cost back then. It was 20 bucks an hour for a small two place airplane and another 10 an hour for the services of the C-F-I. I said that I thought any flying instructor he might talk to would surely think he was a mad man and that they might pull his ticket too! Much to my surprise the next afternoon he called me up and told me to be down at the airport in the morning at 10 A.M. My flying lesson was then but if I wanted to get a few pointers ahead of time be there two hours earlier and meet him in the flight center and he would show me around in his plane.

I told my dad all about it and he too thought we all were out of our trees but he would drive me over. Dad flew in in the Second World War and knew about flying.

We met my friend the next day and he explained all the flight controls and their functions to me. Not only do you have to worry about left and right, you have to worry about up and down too. An aircraft doesn't only operate in two axes, it moves in 3 because an aircraft can also roll. So there is pitch and roll in addition to left and right. Many concepts were explained to me by using my hand representing an airplane or a toy aircraft. He explained the instruments and what they were used fore and it was as clear as mud at midnight on a dark night! He said "don't worry about it now. It'll all come to you as you learn." I began to think he may be in error. We had the left hand side cabin door open for fresh air and a man came up to me and said you must be Alan Paganelli. My name is John and I'm going to be your flying instructor. I remember thinking to myself; funny, he doesn't sound like a mad man.

John took my brand new empty log book and said I'll make your entries for you and sign off on them with my certified flying instructor's number. That makes it all legal and all. That means I will be making a record of it myself for my records. I thought yeah for the hearing to see which of us is nuttier! Is there such a word? I took his arm and called over my shoulder that I would see my dad and friend when we got back; hopefully.

John lead me over to a Cessna 1 50 with the identification number of November 6 6 2 1 4. I thought I would be riding in the right hand seat and this would more or less be an introductory lesson. This is this, that's that, we do this to go up and that to go down etc etc etc. No such luck. John led me over to the left hand side of the aircraft and to the pilotís door and helped me strap in. The aircraft had a shoulder and lap strap much like what one would find in an automobile except that the shoulder strap and lap strap are not joined together at the buckle but are independent of each other but are pretty much the same kind of set up. I sat there as he ran around to the right side of the plane and climbed in fastening his own seat belt and shoulder harness. I thought he better make it real good and tight. After he was settled he produced a clip-board and pen and began filling out the paper work as to aircraft identification number, date, time, persons onboard and the like. Wow, we aren't fooling around here. This must be in case we die or crash and burn or something. I later found out it was for the billing of his and the aircraft's time but you couldn't have convinced me of it at the time.

"Okay Alan, I'm ready. What we're going to do is to get out the pre-flight and before starting engines check list and I'm going to read each item to you. I did it for you this time but from now on you'll be required to do it yourself. I'll assist you the next time so you can learn the correct way to do it for this aircraft. What we are concerned here with now and always is safety safety safety; both yours and mine as well as to those on the ground. As I've said I have already did the preflight and we can proceed to the engine start check list. I will again read every item and you will perform the necessary action to accomplish that task. Are you ready?" He described all the things I would have to do to insure the aircraft was ready to fly including making sure there was fuel in the tanks down to making sure there were no rivets missing from the aircraft's skin and that the landing wheels were correct and proper. I remember thinking there is a lot more to this than there would be in a car. I haven't even got the engine turned on yet! I wonder if there is a key to this thing.....

John read every item on his check-list and made sure I had performed each task. We finally came to the engine start and he says "before you turn the key, they actually did have one surprisingly enough; you have to yell clear before you turn the engine on. This is to make sure everybody around the area knows you are about to start that propeller to turning extremely fast and we don't want any accidents or anybody to be hurt. Safety, safety, safety remember that always." I waited a few seconds to let anybody near by look around them after I yelled at the top of my lungs, (cleeeeear!) and hit the key. The big giros spun up and began to wine as the radios came on line after the big engine roared into life. Now that was really neat and we aren't even out of the parking place yet. Now this is cool. John said next to me, yeah my face brakes out in a big grin too when I start up too because I know it won't be long before I'm flying.

"What I'm going to do is to tell you a little bit of left or a little bit of right. What I want you to do is when I say a little bit of right is to take your right foot and lightly press on the right rudder pedal. When I say a little bit of left I want you to lightly press on the left rudder pedal with your left foot. The left and right rudder pedals are located right in front of your feet on the floor. Make sure when you press one of the rudder pedals your pressing on the pedal and not on it's top because you would be stepping on the brake for that pedal. There will be times when your going to do that to assist in turning but for now don't worry about it. I'll help you at first till you get the hang of it and from then on you'll do it yourself. When you press on the right pedal the aircraft will taxi in that direction and by means of the rudder pedals we can control the direction in which we want the aircraft to go. Are you ready to taxi?" Yep! let's do it. "Okay as you have learned we use check-lists to do everything so we leave nothing out. We also do not move or anything else with out clearance when youíre a student pilot. Is that understood?" It is said I. "Then, youíre cleared to taxi."

John expertly guided me out of the parking ramp and on to the taxi way. I remember thinking if the sighted only knew this blind fool was taxiing this airplane they'd clear the area for miles around but nobody seemed to notice! We came to the run-up area and John and I went through the run-up checklist. This is to make sure the flight controls haven't picked up any debris or foreign objects and that the engine is developing full power for flight. "Everything looks good and youíre cleared to runway 2_7." This does not mean that there are twenty seven runways at this airport but rather the runway is laid out east to west on a compass heading of 270 degrees. Of course the opposite direction would be zero niner zero on the exact same runway only going the other way. I found out that a pilot has to be able to keep the picture in his mind of what's going on at all times.

I taxied out of the run-up area and on to runway two seven and put my hands in my lap and made sure my feet were well away from the rudder pedals. John said "what are you doing? You can't fly with your hands in your lap. The pilot always sits in the left hand seat and as far as I can see that's you. The pilot does the flying so let's do it." You want me to fly the airplane? "That's what your here for isn't it; to learn how to fly?" I wasn't even sure it would even work at this point in time. "Put your left hand on the control column lightly. (I did as was instructed) but was perfectly sure it wouldn't even work. Now, place your right hand on the throttle. Your right foot will be on the right rudder pedal because when we are going down the runway the torque of the engine will want to rotate the aircraft in an opposite manner than the prop is turning. In other words, when the plane is in the air if the prop is turning clockwise, the airplane wants to rotate counter clockwise and this needs to be compensated for with a little right rudder. I was as ready as I could be but was sure it wouldn't work at all. We would surely go spinning off into space like some crazed egg beater.

John said I'll call out your speed for you and direct you down the runway. Remember, a little bit of right and a little bit of left. We will accelerate out to 50 knots and rotate the aircraft. About 55 knots the aircraft will leave the ground." I remember thinking the hell you say. What was I doing? Blind people don't fly aircraft at over fifty miles an hour and they're not even off the ground yet. At that rate of speed if I hit those rudders to hard we'll wind up off to the side of the runway into the weeds if we don't take out a few of those runway lights and that's if we're lucky. It could go to hell in a hand cart real damn quick. It's not too late. I can still tell John I didn't have guts enough to try something so foolhardy. This was madness to think I could ever learn to fly and this guy sitting next to me is so calm and collected like he teaches totally blind guys how to fly every day. John interrupted my thoughts which had probably only lasted a second or two. "Okay, push the throttle to the firewall and let's go flying pilot. Well if this guy was a crazy fool what the hell maybe he did teach blind guys every day. Hit the power or call it quits! Are you a man or a mouse? Do you want to live forever? I shoved the throttle to the stops and thought may God favor the foolish.

The Cessna 1-50 began accelerating down the runway at what seemed to be breakneck speed. John calmly said a little bit of left now. Now a bit of right. Youíre looking good. Your speed is 30. 40. 50. Okay now rotate! I gently eased back on the controls..... The aircraft actually rotates on its main gear from forward to aft. As it goes along the ground in this way poised for flight, as lift exceeds weight the aircraft lifted off the runway into the air. I couldn't believe it. I'll be a dirty name; it actually works. I must have said this out loud because John began to laugh. "I love to see the look on students faces as they take off for the first time. Yours was no different and maybe even more thunder struck than most. Yes, you took off all by yourself. My hands were in my lap and my feet on the deck. Your flying man; your flying. I gave a little whoop of joy. So this was what it was all about. It doesn't matter how small or how large the aircraft is the experience is still the same. You can sit next to the pilot a thousand hours through hundreds of take-offs and never even have a clue of what that feels like because there is no way to describe it.

After many more such takeoffs the feeling never lessened. I've heard it said that it's about as close to being a bird as you'll ever get but it's more than that. I have asked men and women alike their thoughts on this subject. I've asked jet jockeys and small aircraft pilots and one astronaut, Sally Ride and they all to a person agree they experienced the same thing. It's like touching the face of God. I know you won't understand that and I don't expect anybody to do so either but it's the best description I have ever heard. I had a guy one time try to tell me you experience the same thing in a race car and offered to show me. We hit 130 miles in a short time but it wasn't anywhere near the same thing because a car is limited to only two axis and not three.

I have flown many different kinds of aircraft at one time or another. The coolest was an aircraft where there were no sides or nothing overhead. The main wing and engine were behind and above you in a pusher arrangement. The propeller faces backwards and actually pushes the aircraft through the air but it's about as close to riding on a broomstick as one can get and fun as hell. Don't drop your sunglasses because the next step is three thousand feet below and for God's sake don't smile unless you want your teeth full of bugs..... The aircraft is named quite appropriately enough, A "Breezy." I flew a L-10-11 Try star up from Florida on a return to Chicago one time and the passengers in the back never knew that some blind guy flew them the last fifteen minutes along the way.

I went on with John for another 40 or so hours and have them all in my log book to this day. He went on to bigger and better things and the last time I saw him he was flying for a major airline. One day I asked him why he was willing to try to teach me how to fly. It surely had to be a monumental task. The regular methods of teaching wouldn't work here on a totally blind person. ""Well, I thought of that it's true enough. On the other hand, if I could find ways to make it clear to a blind man it might make it easier to a sighted one as well. Everybody would be better off for it and I would be a better pilot and instructor for it."

I had a second instructor after John and learned much from him too. That was back in the 70's. I flew many times since then and even did some flying in sail planes and tossed those around the sky doing aerobatics for the fun of it. Imagine roller coaster hills a thousand feet high and a sudden drop of thousands of feet. Picture your head in the center of a circle. Now imagine your butt making a sideways circle from right to left up over your head and back down again wile your head appears to stay in the center of that circle. That my friends is called a roll and is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on. Picture yourself being raced up and have your head back in that center circle again. Now imagine your butt going up over your head and stopping there with your butt up and your head down and now it feels like you're falling straight down before it all reverses to the way it was when it started. This is called a wing over and is just as much fun.

I met a guy in Boulder City, Nevada who was a sail plane pilot who took me up for a ride in a plane with no engine. That's called a sail plane my friends because you seek out thermals that rise. Thermals are warm rising columns of air. These can actually lift an aircraft. Sail plane pilots can stay aloft for quite some time just riding the rising air columns like the eagles do. After a prop plane towed us to an altitude of 10,000 feet and turned us lose, he says I usually take the tourists over the Las Vegas strip and let them see the lights. If you want, I can do that for you and try my best to describe what I see to you if that's okay. I told him about my flying and damn that. Show me what this baby can really do! "Well okay then!" and away we went. It should have been a 30 minute ride. An hour later we landed laughing and having a ball. My dad and wife were on the ground wondering where we were. The half hour had gone by and we weren't back yet. They both looked up in the sky about the same time as we were doing a spin. It looks like the aircraft is doing a spiral down at about a 45 degree angle. Looks scary as hell. They thought we were surely going to buy the farm. Were we in trouble? No way! We were having way too much fun!

blind-geek-zone.net/Audio/ReallyFlyingBlind.mp3 - This is a link to the mp3 recording of his first flight. He suggests using headphones because you can hear him and the instructor better over the engine noise.

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