Flying high on a dream

2014-10-22 00:00

A TEACHER once wrote that Damian Hunter should “accept his limitations”.

Cerebral palsy has affected Hunter’s limbs and his speech throughout his life — and he still struggles to drink from a cup.

But the 27-year-old from New Germany is already believed to be the first South African with a neurological disorder to land an aircraft.

And Hunter is now potentially just a few hours’ flying-time away from doing his first “solo” as a aircraft pilot — and becoming a pioneer for all South Africans with disabilities.

Yesterday, he told The Witness he planned to go further still: “My goal is to make a career in aviation. And I’d like to encourage everyone with physical challenges to ignore any discouragement and go for what they want.”

His instructor, Jon Sargood from Durban Aviation Centre, said Hunter had made “really remarkable” progress in over 45 hours of in-flight training.

“When I last flew with Damian, he landed the aircraft without any assistance. He made all the radio calls — he has good aviation skills.

“There are able-bodied students who have taken longer to get to this point. As far as I’m aware, there is no record of any other South African with cerebral palsy having been a pilot in training, and we think Damian can progress even further.”

Hunter is now awaiting permission from the Civil Aviation Authority to take medical tests that would allow him to tackle his solo flight and obtain his pilot’s licence.

But a British aviation charity, Aerobility, yesterday told The Witness that Hunter had already taken — and passed — two equivalent medical assessments in the UK.

Operations manager Brian Catchpoole said: “He is an extremely dedicated and passionate student pilot, and we hope he’ll be given the chance to prove his competence. He’s also a great guy with a heck of a sense of humour.”

Nathan Doidge, a British man with a more severe form of cerebral palsy, has already achieved his private pilot’s licence in the UK, having once struggled even “to sit up unsupported”.

Catchpoole said that, despite the stigma that exists around the condition, the world’s small group of pilots with cerebral palsy had a safety record “absolutely as good as that of other pilots”.

Last year, Hunter was given the “incredible opportunity” of attempting to land a Boeing 747 in a simulator — and nailed it.

And it was the big jets — especially the 747 — which triggered his passion for aviation as an eight-year-old.

His speech becomes fluent as he talks about flying a jumbo: “It may be a bit old-fashioned, but the great thing about the Boeing 747-400 is that you can feel the aircraft responding through the stick — the feedback is incredibly sensitive.”

He said a small minority of people had prejudiced views about disabled pilots: “One fool in the queue at the shop said ‘I’d never fly with that guy’.”

Stefan Erdmann, a director at the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, commended Hunter’s dedication.

But said that “I fear that getting a licence with his condition could be a pipe dream”.

“I am pursuing my dream — it’s not just a novelty for me. I absolutely love to fly, and it’s also a life’s ambition.”

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