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While he lay in a coma following a car crash two years ago, Zach Elliott’s family struggled with how to tell him two pieces of bad news.
It was bad enough that the crash had severed his spinal column and he would, at age 18, never walk again, but his parents had to find a way to tell him he would have to give up on his life’s dream.
Since his first flight in a glider when he was 13, Elliott wanted to be a pilot. He paid his way through flight school working part time at Sweet’s Food Mart in his hometown of Seeley’s Bay.
At age 16, he had his recreational pilot’s licence and two years later he had a full private pilot’s licence.
His career goal was to be a commercial pilot.
“After his first flight, that’s what he wanted to become. He always knew what he wanted to become,” said his mother, Sue Elliott. “Then, after the accident, he was in a coma for a coupe of days and while he was out we were kind of debating how we were going to tell him not only that he couldn’t walk (but) that he couldn’t fly.”
Before he woke up, Sue Elliott and her son Jerrett searched online to find out what flying options there were for paraplegics.
The news that he could still fly helped him cope with his injuries and it set him on a new career path that will keep him flying.
After adjusting to life in a wheelchair, Zach Elliott had enrolled at King George Aviation in Surrey, B.C., the only flight school in Canada that teaches paraplegic pilots to fly using hand controls.
After getting his ultralight licence, he continued training to receive his instructor’s certification.
“I would not have imagined that I would be flying this soon again,” he said. “Two years ago, I thought, kind of, life was over.”
On Saturday, Elliott, now 20, is to host the grand opening of Ontario Advanced Ultralights, his new flight training school at the Norman Rogers Airport.
“It actually has been a blessing in disguise,” he said of his June 2013 crash. “I wouldn’t have been able to do all this if it wasn’t for the accident.
“Doing this, I get to bring the experience of flying to all other kinds of people and I get to see the joy when they try their first flight. It’s not a job at all. It gives me a lot of pride and happiness to see people enjoying what I enjoy,” he said.
Late last month, Elliott travelled to Florida to pick up and fly home a brand-new, German-made Icarus C42 advanced ultralight. The plane has been outfitted with hand controls. He explained that the only real difference is that instead of controlling the rudder with his feet, he uses a lever attached to the rudder pedals, a system he said is actually easier to use than the regular style.
The hand controls can be removed to allow able-bodied pilots to fly, and the high wings and tricycle landing gear make the C42 a great training aircraft.
Buying a new plane and launching a flight school has been an important way to cope with his spinal chord injury, said Sue Elliott.
“Being focused on something takes your focus off other things. He had something to strive for,” she said. “That’s what you really have to do in life, is find something to look forward to. Otherwise, if something tragic happens to you like that, you’re just going to become depressed.”
“I’m amazed at his hard work and determination. His drive is just like crazy,” added his father, Jerry Elliott. “I don’t think I could do it if I was him, myself, if that happened to me. It’s not held him back any; he’s just gone forward with it.
I’m just incredibly proud of him.”
Teaching others to fly gives Zach Elliott a sense of satisfaction, but he said the greatest gift of flight is the liberty it provides him.
“I get that really great sense of freedom that I don’t have to bring my wheelchair along with me,” he said.
“There is no longer a disability there. People, when they look up on the ground and they see a plane, they don’t see the wheelchair and they don’t see the disability. It gives me a sense of freedom, you know, I can just leave it behind,” he said.
“I think a lot of people find freedom in flying, but I personally find that extra little bit of freedom.”