The sky's the limit for pilot who overcame stuttering to fly
In the cockpit of a rented two-seater plane on the tarmac of Glendale Municipal Airport, Johnathan Smith set his flight coordinates, checked the right and left magnetos, and confirmed that his readings were in the green. Speaking into the microphone attached to his headset, he addressed the control tower with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent: "This is light sport November eight eight, ready for takeoff on runway one."
With flight permission granted, Smith taxied onto the northbound runway and pushed the throttle. Light sport plane N88 lifted smoothly into the sky, banked over the University of Phoenix stadium and headed east toward the rising sun.
Smith flies a few times a week, usually taking short trips before work, as he tries to accumulate the last dozen hours he needs to become a certified flight instructor. He suspects that his voice is sometimes the first one flight controllers hear in the morning. But what they don't hear is what happens when Smith takes the headset off. Because without it, he stutters so severely that for most of his life, he didn't believe he could be a pilot at all.
Now 47, Smith has had a stuttering disorder since childhood. Some words and sentences come easily, but at other times he struggles from syllable to syllable. Telephones are a challenge.
The attempts to cure him have varied widely — except in their results. Doctors cut the membranes under his tongue and inside his upper lip. They gave him a beeper-like device that delivered electrical shocks at regular intervals. Speech therapists taught him breathing techniques and enunciation drills. Nothing made much difference.
When he was young, Smith wasn't much bothered by his stuttering. "It was just something I did," he remembered.
The biggest difficulty he faced was that he never got the tater tots he wanted from the cafeteria line because he couldn't get the words out. But as he got older, teachers advised him to stick to manual labor because his speech would disqualify him from any professional career.
An interest in flight
Smith, however, was always interested in airplanes. He'd watch them fly over his house in Brooklyn and wonder what it was like to be a pilot. When he was 22, he found a flight school in New Jersey and decided to enroll.
He didn't get far, though. The flight instructors refused to admit him because Federal Aviation Administration regulations required all pilots to be fluent in English. Even if he passed the medical exam, they said, he wouldn't pass the FAA practical test — commonly known as the check ride.
Instead, he took a job in the packaging department at Paine Webber doing the manual labor that his teachers had suggested. But one day he bumped into a vice president who complained that his computer wasn't working. Smith, who enjoyed tinkering with electronics, fixed the problem so easily that the executive reassigned him to the IT department and arranged to have the company pay for his training.
As a programmer, Smith advanced rapidly, working a series of IT positions in the banking industry. Moreover, he said, the experience "told me that everybody was wrong and I didn't have to let my speech stop me."
Still, Smith assumed that he couldn't become a pilot, so he satisfied his interest in flight in other ways, including by building drones from parts he bought online. After moving to Surprise two years ago, he started competing in drone races, which connected him with the Phoenix-area flying community. Eventually he learned that the FAA had created a new "sport pilot" license that allows pilots to fly two-seater planes during daylight hours. And the sport license required no medical exam.
A life-changing discovery
By then Smith had discovered something else: When he spoke through a radio headset, his stuttering disappeared because of the auditory feedback it created.
Armed with this knowledge, he approached Rick Rademaker, president of Arizona Flight Training Center in Glendale.
Rademaker was skeptical, not only because the FAA fluency rule still applied to sport pilots, but because, he admitted, "when you meet someone with a stutter, it's easy to think that they can't do anything. It's totally inappropriate, but it's also subconscious. You don't even realize you're thinking it."
Smith, however, was prepared to demonstrate how much he could do. He convinced Rademaker to let him take the FAA knowledge tests before he even started flight lessons. The tests aren't usually administered until at least halfway through flight training, but Smith studied books and videos until he was able to pass the exam on his first try.
"I was just so focused on proving to these guys that my speech doesn't stop my brain," Smith explained.
"People like Johnathan who have something to overcome sometimes have to work harder," Philip Corbell, Smith's flight instructor, observed, "so they actually end up knowing the material even better."
With the written exams out of the way, Smith took his first flight on Jan. 11. After that, he said, "I was in the airport every day. I read every book and I flew every day they would let me."
Passing the test
On March 14, Smith climbed into a plane with an FAA examiner. He put on the headset, radioed the control tower, pushed the throttle ... and passed his check ride with no trouble at all.
By March 15, Johnathan Smith was a pilot.
With his dream realized, Smith immediately decided that he wanted to become a flight instructor.
"I just kept going, going, going," he recalled.
Smith completed his advanced ground instructor training on Sept. 30, and now has 10 students who study navigation, weather and flight rules with him. One of those students, Rod Hill, is a customer-service representative for Southwest Airlines who describes Smith as an excellent teacher.
"He's a great guy," Hill said. "I don't feel like there's a communication barrier at all. I'm learning so much from him and I can't wait for us to get up in the air together."
The only things they're waiting on are Smith's last few practice hours and his test with another FAA examiner. It is, Corbell noted, a testament to Smith's rapport with his students that they would rather wait for him to finish his training than seek out another instructor to fly with now.
Sharing the love of flight
In the meantime, Smith has found other ways to share his enthusiasm by offering free flights to anyone interested and by creating a website under the name LightSport Man, which has not only attracted students but also sponsorships from companies like David Clark headsets and Gleim aviation training.
That response, Corbell said, "is a big kudo for somebody who started just a few months ago. It's a big deal."
Likewise, Rademaker is delighted to have been proven wrong."I went from having very little confidence in him to having a great deal of confidence," he said of Smith. "He came in with the deck stacked against him, but he really proved everybody wrong."
The entire experience, Smith said, has taught him to pursue his dreams despite obstacles. But it hasn't always been easy. In addition to his stutter, he's had plenty of technical challenges to overcome. Like most sport pilots, he rents the planes he uses, and each one has its quirks. He's had the engine go out, the brakes fail, the flaps stop working, and even had a door pop open midair.
But no matter what goes wrong, Smith has kept going. "Whatever it is, if the radio breaks or the engine goes out or the door falls off, you've just got to keep flying," he said. "If the plane is still in the air, you keep flying."
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