Sarah Herron

Meet Jessica Cox; The World’s First Licensed Armless Pilot

by

Sponsored by Delta

Photos by Natalie Colapietro

(skip ahead to read my interview with Jess, and hear her speech at the end of this post)


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Traveling – let alone walking through an airport – can cause a lot of anxiety for a person with a physical difference. Having grown up with only one arm, I can remember instances while flying as a young adult that were innocent in intent but alienating to me as an individual.

The hassle of going through a security line is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the adversity a person with a physical difference encounters when traveling. Have you ever considered lifting a suitcase into the overhead bin with one arm? Or no arms? Or how ‘bout the policies around sitting in an exit row if you are a person with limited range of mobility? These are just a few reasons why traveling with a physical difference can sometimes be enough to make one reconsider flying altogether.

When I was 18 years old, I remember flying to Los Angeles by myself. It was one of the most empowering milestones of my adolescence. However, there stood one, major obstacle between me and that empowerment; and it was that I couldn’t lift my suitcase into the overhead bin by myself. Although the suitcase was within size requirements, it was heavy and obscure even for a petite young woman with BOTH arms to lift overhead. So, I did what most people would do, and I asked a Flight Attendant to help me. The Flight Attendant replied to me that “if I wasn’t strong enough to lift my bag overhead, I shouldn’t have brought it on board.” 

I will give this Flight Attendant the benefit of the doubt in presuming she did not see that I only had one arm. But all I could focus on was the fact that she thought I wasn’t strong enough. I felt ashamed and embarrassed. I remember crying the entire flight to LA, texting my mom with humiliation from what had just happened. On that day, I vowed I would never carry a suitcase onto a plane again. 

I later learned that it was not that particular airline’s policy to have Flight Attendants assist passengers with their luggage. Why didn’t someone tell me this!?! Well, this is to ensure the safety of flight attendants from becoming injured on the job. Makes sense considering they are responsible for our safety in the event of an emergency. But I did not know this policy when I was 18. Instead, I only knew the shame and story it created in my mind about why I was being treated differently.

In the years that followed, I became determined not to let my disability become a moment of weakness, and instead an opportunity for empowerment. I didn’t want to subject myself to situations that made me feel inadequate or small… so I started seeing how I could prepare and educate myself for those encounters before they happened. I started looking into the opportunities, rights and resources, I, a traveler with a disability, had to my advantage. For example, I now board my flights during the pre-board stage for people with disabilities. It was difficult for my ego to see past this one, but I learned it is more valuable for me to have time and space to get myself and luggage situated on the plane instead of being scrambled and stared at by a plane full of passengers. In the off chance that I am seated in an exit row, I go straight to the ticket agent and ask for a seat change, as to avoid being called out and re-seated once I’m already on the plane. 

Over the years and through my work with SheLift, topics such as these arise often and I am able to share tips like this. I consider it an honor to be able to share my story and tips for empowerment to others.

When I partnered with Delta Air Lines, I wanted to help Delta in their commitment to improve people’s LIFE experiences not just in the places they go. So I wanted to learn more about their innovation as a brand who serves people of all abilities. 

They immediately brought me on board and invited me to weigh in on some of their latest initiatives to include people with physical differences in their in-flight experience and marketing efforts. Honestly, what followed blew me away! As a former ad exec, this was my DREAM. The team invited me to review never-before seen creative work that the brand has been developing over the last several months. What I saw made my heart swell, and you can see it all here: LINK

One initiative in particular that I LOVE, is that Delta will be the first US airline to identify sign language qualified staff. Delta will soon be rolling out a uniform language bar option for over 300+ sign languages around the world. Delta is the first U.S. airline to offer this option; and with this improvement, customers and qualified employees will immediately be able to visually recognize when they hold sign language as a common connection.  They are also creating a series of video content that includes children and adults with physical differences of all kinds.


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I LOVED being able to help provide feedback on the work Delta is creating; as a creative and as a person with a disability, it was an honor to have my opinion valued and respected! So obviously, I asked if there was a way to become involved in a greater capacity. Delta immediately replied by wanting to introduce me to Jessica Cox, who is the first American aviation pilot to have no arms. Jessica is a key member of the Delta’s Advisory Board on Disability and works closely with Delta as a member of their board to share her perspective on new policies, training and experiences that impact passengers with disabilities.

Jessica and I chatted on the phone for awhile and quickly learned that our stories and experiences as women with physical differences were very similar! I immediately knew we HAD to get Jess to the quickly approaching SheLift Summit in Park City, Utah. My hope was to have her speak to our young ladies about overcoming obstacles and defying all odds. Afterall, Jess is an accredited speaker, storyteller and subject of many-a documentary and literature.

Luckily, (with Delta’s assistance) all the stars aligned and Jess was able to join us for the summit! It was the first retreat of its kind and hosted 50 young women and girls throughout the weekend for a multitude of adventures. The girls partook in recreational activities and workshops rooted in the organization’s mission to empower young women and girls with physical differences to discover confidence and self-esteem through outdoor recreation and mentorship.

Jessica not only participated in all of the weekend’s activities with us, hiking, archery, indoor rock climbing, bowling, challenge course and more… she was our keynote speaker and delivered a powerful message to our girls about her experience as a pilot. 

After the SheLift Summit, I wanted to have a conversation with Jess about her experience with Delta’s Advisory Board on Disability and her perspective as an advocate for people with physical differences. I interviewed Jess about some of those topics which you can read below.

I want to thank Delta Air Lines for making it possible for Jess to attend the SheLift Summit, but furthermore, I want to commend the work they are doing to listen, observe and respond to the feedback that people with disabilities are sharing. It’s my greatest hope that through our combined initiatives, more people will feel empowered when boarding an airplane.

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Read my Q&A with Jessica Cox

What does being the world’s first licensed armless pilot mean for you? 

I often say that learning to fly an airplane was one of the most physically demanding skills that I have ever learned.  I am incredibly proud that I was able to achieve the feat and grateful to those who helped make it possible.  

What was your motivation for becoming a pilot?

My greatest fear was flying and I figured there was no better way to get over it than to do it!

What has your experience been with commercial travel, as a person with a physical difference? 

When I travel commercially, there are many assumptions from others as to what I can and can not do. Many people think that I can not manage to put on my own seatbelt.  Sometimes it can be tiring having to deal with so many assumptions.

Have you ever had a travel experience that made you feel discouraged, and if so, how did you overcome those feelings or adversity? 

There was a time I was traveling alone internationally and a Flight Attendant was uncomfortable about my disability. As a result, they tried to avoid helping me. I later contacted that airline to inform them of the situation so that they would directly handle the matter with them. 

How did you get involved with Delta’s board of advisors?

David Martin ( the former  program manager of disabilities for regulatory compliance), saw a documentary that was done about my life. He then reached out and invited me to be on Delta’s Advisory Board on Disability.

What opportunity do you feel you have as an advisor for Delta?

I am grateful to have the opportunity to share my unique experience of traveling with a unique disability as well as an advocate for people with other disabilities. 

What advice can you give to airline passengers traveling with physical differences? 

I would highly recommend to passengers traveling with physical differences to be aware of the services that are out there to help you.  Awareness leads to empowerment.

What do you wish (able bodied) people knew or better understood about the travel experience for people with physical differences?

Sometimes I wish people would understand that people with physical differences just want to experience travel like anyone else.  They don’t want to have to deal with additional hassle or judgement from others.

Tell us a little bit about your experience at the SheLift Summit. 

I experienced the SheLift Summit for the very first time and was blown away by the impact one weekend can make.  I bonded with many girls myself and watched as many girls were in tears on the last day.  

If readers can take away one bit of inspiration from you today, what message do you hope to convey? 

If you really want to do something, don’t let anything stop you! Other people and even ourselves will stand in the way to keep us from achieving our dreams.

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