July 23, 2010 / 1:54 PM / in 7 years

Charity aims to teach the disabled to fly

FARNBOROUGH, England (Reuters Life!) - The world’s most terrifying war planes shred the skies over the Farnborough Airshow, performing stunts and demonstrations and delighting the throngs of aviation enthusiasts who gathered to watch.

Back on the ground, in one small corner of a cavernous exhibit hall a young man with cerebral palsy drinks in the frantic scene.

He attempts to suppress his spasms while he describes a three-hour solo flight he made last April.

“Doing it for the first time was scary,” said Nathan Doidge beaming with delight.

The 30-year-old from Cornwall is confined to a wheelchair. He has brown hair, but much of it is dyed pink. He says learning to fly an airplane is difficult but thrilling.

“Every time you get a step further, it feels like ‘OK, you’ve done that,'” he said. Doidge flies using a special, hand-operated rudder.

“I‘m using the hand control less and less,” he says.

He is learning to fly with assistance from a UK charity called Aerobility, whose goal is to put disabled people in the cockpit. The charity, formerly known as The British Disabled Flying Association, has an information booth at the air show.

“I‘m keen to show the softer side of aerospace,” said Mike Miller-Smith, 39, Aerobility’s chief executive.

Miller-Smith, himself, is a flight lover with muscular dystrophy. He is no longer a licensed pilot because of his degenerative disease.

Aerobility’s history stretches to the mid-1990s when it was a group that helped pilots regain their skills and pilot licenses after serious injuries made plane operation difficult. In 2000, the group became a formal charity devoted to sharing the thrill of piloting with the disabled.

“We work with every disability,” Miller-Smith said. “We never turn anyone away.”

He said, however, that certain physical impairments, like blindness and immobility -- make it impossible for some people to pilot an airplane unassisted. But Aerobility, which has three small planes, gives anyone a chance to operate some part of a flight.

“You have to be realistic about that part of it,” Miller-Smith said.

The cost hovers around 50 pounds ($75) per flight, but the charity does not charge those who cannot afford the fee.

In the last year, nine Aerobility students have made solo flights. Five have become licensed pilots.

Doidge aims to follow that track. Asked when he will fly again, he replies “Hopefully tomorrow.”

Editing by Steve Addison

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