OSHKOSH (NBC 26) — One non-profit is making dreams that seem out of reach take flight by helping people who have physical disabilities become pilots.
Graduates of the Able Flight Class of 2022 were honored Monday at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh with a special pinning ceremony. Some family members flew from around the world to see their loved ones get their wings.
It's been a long journey for Chris Murad, one of the graduates, whose dream of flying almost came crashing down a few years ago.
"I was a junior in college when I was actually injured after my bartending job," Murad said.
It happened when Murad was an aerospace engineering student at Georgia Tech. He worked at a bar to help pay for school. After one of his shifts, Murad was shot in the spine during a car robbery. The incident paralyzed him from the waist down.
"I thought there was no way I'd ever be a pilot again," Murad said. "It was a struggle because I didn't know who I was."
But thanks to a nurse, Murad found Able Flight, a program that helps people living with physical challenges obtain their sport pilot certificates.
"Because of this program, I'm able to complete my dream ever since I was a kid," Murad said. "Now my dream has come true."
Able Flight creates adapted aircraft for those who have a physical disabilities. For people like Murad, that may include a second control stick that operates the rudder pedals and breaks.
"This allows people who use wheelchairs or amputees to be able to operate the controls in a different way, but it's the same controls. They have the same effect," said Charles Stites, Able Flight executive director.
Stites founded Able Flight in 2006. The program partners with Purdue University as the student pilots go through six weeks of intense training, flying twice a day and studying in the middle.
Students are carefully selected based on their applications. Each one receives a scholarship given through private donors to pay for the training.
Their time from students to pilots comes full circle at the pinning ceremony held at AirVenture.
"This is the time that family and friends come together," Stites said. "This is a truly, truly wonderful day because of what it represents."
Murad said he's now seeking out careers as an aerospace engineer. He can also fly as a sport or private pilot.
"It was a journey I almost gave up on. So to have that spark rekindled, it feels great and I feel accomplished," Murad said.
Stites said an Able Flight committee is reviewing applications for the Class of 2023. Those who meet the criteria can apply from across the country, including in Wisconsin. Those interested have until the end of December to apply.