A Physical Disability Didn’t Stop This Black Woman From Getting Her Pilot’s License
By DeAnna Taylor
If someone tells you that you can’t, show them that you can. Leslie Irby is the epitome of this popular mantra.
The Georgia native recently set out to do something that doctors and those on the outside looking in would say was impossible. The 29-year-old recently added the word pilot to her resume despite being confined to a wheelchair.
In 2013, Leslie was involved in a serious car accident that sadly claimed the lives of two others and left her and one other person paralyzed. Her spinal cord was severed at the L3 vertebrae which left her to depend on a wheelchair to get around.
“I choose to celebrate this second chance at life I was granted,” Leslie told Travel Noire. “Instead of looking at this as a negative thing, being an optimist, I saw the beauty in it. The doctors said, ‘You will need a wheelchair.’ I asked, ‘well do y’all have a pink one?’”
Despite losing the ability to walk, she has not let go of who she is to her core. Instead, she sees her new life as a blessing in disguise.
As a child, growing up near Atlanta’s airport, she always had a fascination with airplanes and the rumble of the engines. So much so, she told her father that she wanted to be a pilot. To help spark her curiosity, he bought her a Bessie Coleman poster and explained that she was the first Black female pilot.
“I researched Bessie and fell more and more in love with her determination to never take no as an answer and to believe in herself. Women are capable of achieving anything in this world we desire. If she could do it then, I knew for sure, I could do it now!”
Leslie learned about Able Flight, a program created by Charles Stites, to make the aviation industry more inclusive. Through grants and funding from major corporations, the program has now certified 50 pilots from across the country. Leslie is among them.
“It is a very rigorous 7 week, non-interrupted, program offered at Purdue University or Ohio State. We go through scholarship recipient training both day and evening, with ground school in the middle of the day. All of this prepares us to receive our sport pilot license if our final check ride is passed.”
The planes used are all adapted with hand controls for the rudder pedals and hand brakes. The sky arrow 600 is a fully accessible aircraft designed and manufactured for people with disabilities in mind.
Since receiving her sport license, Leslie spends time flying around Atlanta, mostly taking up friends and family willing to go for the ride. She is now studying for the next level, which is her private pilot license.
“Now that I have my sport license, I plan to move full throttle ahead into my private. There are only a few FAA requirements separating a sport license from a private, so currently I am working on my night flying requirements down in Louisiana. After that, I will take another checkride and then I’ll have my private pilot license.”
When asked to give advice or words of wisdom to those who feel limited by their physical disabilities, Leslie had this to say:
“Being disabled is mental. If you want to do something in life, do it. Yes, it may not be the most conventional way, but if it’s something you’re passionate about, do it.”
“There will always be somebody who tells you no, but don’t let that no be the reason you don’t succeed. Ain’t no shortcuts to success, you gotta earn that shit! I tell people all the time, being a person of color, you have to work twice as hard. Being a woman, you have to work three times as hard. Being a black woman with a disability, I have to work four times as hard. IF I DID IT, YOU CAN DO WHATEVER YOUR HEART DESIRES TOO.”
DeAnna Taylor is a criminal defense Attorney turned travel blogger, author, and writer. While Charlotte, NC (her hometown) is her base, she's always somewhere on a plane. Catch her on IG: @brokeandabroadlife.