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EAA AirVenture Oshkosh RSS FeedFirst pilot to fly only with feet continues to inspire
Story and photos by Barbara A. Schmitz

Jessica Cox signs an autograph for 9-year-old Shaylee Boger, of Dickens, Texas, on Tuesday.

Jessica Cox said her father never once shed a tear after she was born without arms.

“He never saw me as a victim,” she said, “and that has given me the strength to be the person I am.”

Cox, a motivational speaker from Tucson, Arizona, is the first pilot certificated by the FAA to fly with her feet only, with no use of prosthetic devices or airplane modifications. She spoke Tuesday at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2010.

Passing her sport pilot checkride flying an Ercoupe on October 10, 2008, Cox now has about 130 hours in her logbook. She said she looked at the first challenge of learning to fly a plane—buckling the four-point harness—just as she looked at the challenge of tying her shoelaces as a child.

After thinking about it for a while, she sat on top of the seat, put the four buckles together, loosened the straps and then slipped in. Next, using her foot, she put the shoulder strap over the right shoulder, and then the left. Finally, she pulled the lap belt in place.

“The most important thing I learned then is that I always have to think outside the shoe,” Cox quipped. With similar thinking and ingenuity, she figured out how to put on her headset, to handle a yoke, to perform a stall, and to land.

Cox said she grew up using her right foot as her right hand. She learned to play and to eat using her feet. Even to pull her sister’s hair when she was mad at her.

At her first dance recital at age 6, Cox said she wanted to hide her disability and be in the back row. But there was no back row.

“I learned then that I had nothing to hide and that there wasn’t anything wrong with being different,” she said. “It’s something I’m proud of.”

For 12 years, Cox wore prosthetic arms, which helped to carry a backpack. But that was the only good thing about the artificial limbs, she said.

“They were hooks, they were plaster, they were heavy, they were cumbersome, and I did better with my feet than I did with the prosthetics,” she said.

Since flying into AirVenture 2009 in a group of Ercoupes, Cox has gone on to reach other heights. She is now scuba certified and rode her first horse. She has flown in the Philippines and Guatemala, and on Monday she met with President Obama at the White House. She has met countless celebrities and has actually become one herself. Her story of inspiration is known throughout the United States and in many foreign countries.

“But the most rewarding thing is that I can inspire others who are like myself,” Cox said. “I’m mentoring other people who were born without arms. It means a lot to be able to share the ropes I went through, and to make things a little easier for them.”

Cox hopes to become a sport pilot instructor and someday to take a flight into space. But her immediate goal—landing some seats for a Cubs game with her sister—should be a lot easier to achieve.

FUTURE AIRVENTURE DATES: 2014: July 28-Aug. 3; 2015: July 20-26; 2016: July 25-31; 2017: July 24-30
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