You Don’t Need Arms to Have Wings

Jul 30, 2020

Jessica Cox, the world's first pilot with no arms, sails through preflight at Rock Hill-York County Airport on a balmy Tuesday morning. She's about to head for Atlanta as part of her countrywide tour to promote the idea that 'disability is not inability.'
Credit Scott Morgan / South Carolina Public Radio

Admittedly, we don’t often profile residents of Arizona here at South Carolina Public Radio.

But we’ve never gotten a visitor quite like Jessica Cox.

Born without arms, Cox is still gets more done in a given year than most people. She’s a Tae Kwon Do black belt, a certified scuba diver, a surfer, snorkeler, and a slackliner. That’s like a tightrope. Just without a net.

She’s also a pilot, which is what brought her to Rock Hill-York County Airport. She was on the way  back to Tucson after visiting former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who was the lead sponsor of a bill back in 1990 that altered Cox’s life for the better.

The whole goal was to fly Sen. Harkin to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she said. “We wanted to celebrate 30 years in a big way. We said ‘Why don’t we reach out to the senator, who was the lead sponsor, take him up?’”

Cox promised Harkin, a former U.S. Navy pilot, “I’m going to take you flying sometime” when they met four

Jessica Cox sometimes flies with the windows down. No, really. She says it's the ultimate feeling of freedom.
Credit Scott Morgan / South Carolina Public Radio

years ago. She got to fulfill her promise at the senator’s home in Maryland, not far from where her aircraft – a 1946 Ercoupe – first rolled off the line.

To say Cox is not one to be hampered by limitations is as accurate an understatement as anyone is likely to make. But although she’s the adventurous type, and although she’s been flying for about 10 years now, she’s old friends with fear.

“I was actually terrified of flying,” she said. “I spent my whole childhood flying commercially and I was just terrified of going up in the big planes. But then this opportunity came up to fly in a small plane, and of course I was terrified. But I went up, and in that first flight I made this commitment that I wanted to do whatever it takes to become a pilot.”

She still gets scared up there, by the way.

“Clouds scare me,” she said. “Weather scares me. Turbulence and not being in smooth air does kind of make me a little scared, but I think that you’ve just got to get through it and be a good pilot.”

In other words, be afraid. And do it anyway.

To hear from Jessica Cox on her all-too-brief visit to Rock Hill, click below.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate Multimedia Reporter for South Carolina Public Radio. Follow Scott on Twitter @ByScottMorgan