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Airman teaches deaf man to fly

SEATTLE -- Rob Drake and his pilot instructor, Senior Airman Christy Helgeson, sign the word for "perfect" in the plane he had a solo flight in.  Airman Helgeson taught Mr. Drake, who is deaf, how to fly.  She is a reservist with the 446th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at nearby McChord Air Force Base.  (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Wendy Beauchaine)

SEATTLE -- Rob Drake and his pilot instructor, Senior Airman Christy Helgeson, sign the word for "perfect" in the plane he had a solo flight in. Airman Helgeson taught Mr. Drake, who is deaf, how to fly. She is a reservist with the 446th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at nearby McChord Air Force Base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Wendy Beauchaine)

MCCHORD AIR FORCE BASE, Wash. (AFPN) -- With planes taking off down the runway behind her, the flight instructor begins talking more loudly while illustrating a point to her student. Then she remembers he cannot hear a word she is saying. He is deaf.

Senior Airman Christy Helgeson met Rob Drake at a local flying club, where she is an assistant chief pilot. A week after they met in September, Mr. Drake asked her to be his instructor, helping him become possibly the first deaf pilot in the state of Washington to learn to fly.

Mr. Drake said he was drawn to Airman Helgeson’s commitment and felt, based on her encouraging words when they met, that she was a natural choice as an instructor. Likewise, Airman Helgeson, an aerospace maintenance journeyman with the 446th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron here, said she was impressed with Mr. Drake’s determination, along with his upbeat sense of humor.

“He never lets anything get him down,” she said. “Even when he’s having a tough day, he’s still laughing and joking, and he’s more motivated than any student I’ve had.”

Mr. Drake shared his memory of meeting Airman Helgeson.

“She said, ‘You can’t fly, and I can’t teach you,’” he said with a smile. “I knew she had to be my instructor so I could give her a hard time.”

He quickly won her over.

“I told him, not only will I teach you, but I will be an ally for you,” said Airman Helgeson, a four-year veteran in the Air Force Reserve.

The two have developed a friendship over the months, laughing and joking, quite at ease with each other.

“I found Christy very easy to communicate with,” Mr. Drake said. “She asked me if I was interested in flying, and she encouraged me to pursue my dream.”

While they were motivated to get started, the process was not easy.

“When you do something out of the ordinary like teaching a deaf person to fly, it’s not just about teaching him. You have to get people out of the notion that deaf people can’t do things,” Airman Helgeson said. “There have been a lot of meetings, phone calls and letters between us and the Flight Standards District Office. This was a whole new game.”

And the game took place at Airman Helgeson’s civilian workplace.

The club flies out of Boeing Field in Seattle where Mr. Drake knew a friend who owned a plane there. He visited one day and met Airman Helgeson. He began flying with her in October and took his first solo flight a month later.

“I knew I would land, but I wanted to land perfectly,” he said. “I didn’t want to make any mistakes or think I needed more practice. I wanted to know I was really ready to go solo, and to me, that meant I had to do everything perfect.”

In aviation, outside factors such as health, family situations and work can affect how a person flies. Fortunately, Mr. Drake had the support of his wife throughout his training.

“She knows it’s my passion,” he said. “She knows I’ll be fine when I put my mind to something. She’s a great wife.”

While sincerity can propel a person to put forth his best effort, it cannot replace communication. For Airman Helgeson, this meant finding a way to teach her motivated student. She began teaching herself sign language so she could communicate even better with Mr. Drake.

“He speaks flawlessly, and he’s so good at lip reading, I almost forget he can’t hear me,” Airman Helgeson said. “He was born deaf. The nerves between his ears and brain are dead, but his ears still function, so he can sense pressure.”

While the two work together very well, there was still much to learn.

“There are so many aviation terms that don’t have an actual sign in sign language,” Airman Helgeson said.

“Once, while we were flying and coming in for a landing, the tower said, ‘Go around,’ meaning, we had to make another loop around before landing. I told Rob, ‘Go around,’ and then a second later I realized he couldn’t hear me,” she said. “Then I realized there was no sign for go around. So I put my hand on his and my other hand reached across his field of vision, so he knew he had to make a loop. Through trial and error, we came up with our own signs for those terms.”

For both student and teacher, the process was an experience to learn from.

“I’m a much better person all-around and a much better instructor since meeting Rob,” Airman Helgeson said. “This has opened up my teaching abilities to help students, since I can communicate in a lot of different ways, and I have more experience to draw from. That’s rewarding.”