Zackary Kukorlo doesn’t let adversity stand in his way. He says being deaf didn’t present much of a challenge when he recently earned his Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) certificate, which enables him to work as an aircraft maintenance technician; such workers are in high demand as industry experts predict a shortage of mechanics in the next decade as airlines look to expand. A more difficult task is overcoming his disability to actually fly the planes he works on, but a special program on Purdue University’s campus recently helped his pilot dreams take flight.

Kukorlo is an A&P mechanic at aviation maintenance company Bergstrom Aircraft Inc. in Washington state, but recently stepped away to attend the six-week Able Flight program at Purdue. Pilots created the national nonprofit organization to enable people with disabilities to learn to fly. This summer marks the eighth year Purdue has been the primary training site for Able Flight; university faculty helped seven students with disabilities from around the country earn their light sport pilot licenses.

“This year, we had three instructors per each student who wanted to be part of the program, but we can only take one; the instructors know they’re great students and want to work with them,” says Purdue Polytechnic Aviation, Transportation and Technology Associate Professor Bernie Wulle. “[The students] are all very motivated. They’re not only here on time, they’re early, and they stay late. If you tell them, ‘We need to go over certain materials,’ they’ve already done it.”

Kukorlo says he’s dreamed of being in the cockpit since he was five years old, but knew it would be “a real challenge” due to his hearing loss. The main obstacle is finding an alternative method to communicate with the tower.

“You have to find another way to communicate with signals, or to set up two-way communication through texting or something like that,” says Kukorlo. “But there are also signals from the tower; when you see the light, you know it’s clear to land and clear to take off.”

The program uses mostly Sky Arrow LSA planes, in which the instructor sits behind the student. Wulle says the aircrafts’ foot pedals, for example, are easily converted to hand controls for people with limited use of their legs. Kukorlo trained in a plane in which he could sit side-by-side with the instructor, so they could communicate using hand signals or writing.

“[People with disabilities] are going to tell you what they need and how they can do it,” says Wulle. “The number one lesson I’ve learned is to get them what they need and get out of the way.”

Kukorlo earned his wings at the end of the program and says the accomplishment “puts my foot in the door” of the pilot world. His ultimate goal is to fly small and large cargo jets as an air transporter—and he keeps his sense of humor intact.

“You freak people out if their pilot is deaf, so I’ve decided to stick with cargo. Will that work out? I’m not sure, but I’m going to try to navigate my way through,” says Kukorlo. “I could probably get my private [pilot license] next, then commercial [pilot license] and instrument [rating]. And just keep moving up all the way to [airline] transport [pilot license]—that’s what my goal is. It’d be a long, gradual stepping up.”

A second deaf Able Flight alumni, and now Purdue graduate student, has also earned a private license and is working on his instrument rating. Wulle is aware of other deaf pilots with commercial licenses and instrument ratings. An instrument rating allows pilots to fly while cloudy or in poor weather, when they can’t see visual references on the ground and must rely solely on the aircraft’s instrumentation to maintain control.

“New technologies being developed right now might even make [licenses] more available to [people who are deaf] as we get more digital data links, etcetera,” says Wulle. “It will be interesting to see what the future holds.”

Wulle is hopeful Able Flight will demonstrate to the industry that people with disabilities are tremendously talented, especially in the area of problem-solving. Kukorlo’s personal flight plan is an example.

“This has been my dream my whole life to do this,” says Kukorlo. “I believe my disability won’t prevent me, but legally, it might [be difficult]. I’ll try my hardest to break through this. It would be a great feeling.”

Story Continues Below

Kukorlo says people with disabilities shouldn’t let anyone stop them from working toward their goals. (Speaking through an interpreter)

Wulle says the Able Flight program has led to many graduates landing internships and jobs within the industry.

Wulle is hopeful the Able Flight program will encourage the business community to hire more people with disabilities.

Wulle says it only takes a few seconds to adapt the Sky Arrow planes for pilots with physical disabilities.