The old saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover is especially true for pilots – and prospective pilots.
Some who seem shy and retiring are tigers in the air, while others who are bold and brash on the ground are timid and meek above it.
When U.S. Marine Sgt. (retired) Adam Kisielewski came by AOPA headquarters in Frederick, Maryland, on Oct. 5 for a flight in the AOPA 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than A Tornado” Husky, I tried to keep an open mind about what to expect on our upcoming flight.
It turns out that Kisielewski, 28, has been through many trials in his young life. In 2005, he was entering a building in Fallujah, Iraq, where he was blasted by a powerful explosive that tore off his left arm and severed his right leg.
Last year, I was privileged to have been among the AOPA staff members who had helped train another wounded warrior, U.S. Marine Sgt. Michael Blair, to become a sport pilot. So Charles Stites, founder of Able Flight, a North Carolina charity that helps the disabled become sport pilots, asked me to fly with Kisielweski – a candidate for an Able Flight scholarship – and share my impressions.
Stites informed me that Kisielewski is an avid motorcyclist, and that got my attention. I once worked for agricultural flying service whose owner who was convinced that riding a motorcycle and flying an airplane drew on the same brain power (or lack of it) – and anyone good at one of those activities would instinctively do just fine at the other. Kisielewski has no ambitions of being a cropduster, but it made me feel good about his chances for becoming a sport pilot.
Then Kisielewski showed up at AOPA driving a new Dodge Charger. I’m not impressed by muscle cars, but this one told me the guy likes powerful, fast machines, and is comfortable operating them. And he was right on time, which showed me he was considerate, and eager to fly.
He moved so well and strode so confidently that I wouldn’t have guessed he wore a prosthetic on his right leg. (His leg amputation is below the knee.) But there was no getting around the fact that his left arm was missing at the shoulder.
“This isn’t a formal evaluation,” Stites told both of us. “There aren’t any grades, or a pass/fail. I just want you to get in the airplane, see what the experience of flying it is like, and find out what kind of strategy will best help you accomplish your goals.”
Kisielewski nodded, and said he was ready to get started immediately.
The day was sunny and clear but breezy with a gusty 15 knots out of the northwest. Our flight was sure to be bumpy, and a good measure of Kisielewski’s desire to fly and comfort in the air.
He had flown in a variety of military aircraft, and he’d sat up front in several general aviation airplanes, but he hadn’t had any ground school or formal flight instruction. I asked him whether he had flown in many Marine helicopters or V-22 tilt-rotors, and he answered that he was primarily a “boat Marine,” and had spent much of his time on ships, as well as nearby Camp David providing security for President George W. Bush.
I introduced him to the Husky and the rugged backcountry aircraft and oversized Tundra tires appealed to him right away.
The Husky is an especially difficult airplane to climb in and out of. It stands high on its 29-inch tires, and boarding it requires lifting yourself on the steel tube frame and pulling your legs to your chest to get them through the clamshell door and over the stick. I use two hands, but Kisielweski, by necessity, managed easily with one. He was in the process of fastening the five-point seatbelt harness one-handed when I reached in to help and inadvertently knocked one of the lap belts to the floor.
Kisielewski had to release all the belts, shift in the seat, and reach around his body with his right hand to retrieve the fallen belt on the left side of the cockpit.
“They can be a bit tricky and easy to drop,” I said.
“Yes, but you’re the one who dropped it, sir,” he pointed out, chuckling. “We’re all about accountability, right?”
I climbed into the back seat, and Kisielewski closed the door and window and turned the key to start the airplane. As we taxied, I asked him to make almost constant S-turns on the ramp to clear the way ahead and, predictably, his left turns were fine but his right turns, using the artificial leg where he had no sensation, weren’t. His left ankle flexed and he could apply the left brake – but not the right.
He pointed out the shortcoming matter-of-factly and proposed a solution.
“It’ll be easy to modify the prosthetic so that I can apply the right brake,” he said. “It’s a simple mechanical fix.”
After engine run-up, he aligned the airplane with Runway 30, and I advanced the power and performed the takeoff. Once airborne, I handed over the stick and rudder and told him to keep his eyes outside. Despite the bumpy air, he did just fine, turned crosswind, downwind, and out of the pattern to the northeast.
“There’s a cement plant with a group of tall buildings 10 miles to the northeast,” I said. “Level off at this altitude and let me know when you see it. Then take us there.”
“I see it now at our 11 o’clock,” he answered, making a slight left turn to put us directly on course.
There was obviously nothing wrong with his vision, and he seemed relaxed while keeping his eyes outside the airplane, just as I had asked. Kisielewsi mentioned that he had recently moved with his wife and 2-year-old child to Libertytown, a small community nearby. I asked him to find and overfly his home.
“Well, there’s Highway 26,” he said, making a slight right turn. “There’s the subdivision, and my house is behind those trees. You’ll be able to see it in just a minute.”
He overflew his home, circled to the left, and looked down on it.
“Is yours the one with the American flag out front?” I asked. The flag was attached to a thick, stand-alone pole in the center of what appeared a recently poured circle of concrete.
We had been flying less than 20 minutes, but I had seen all I needed to see.
“Take us back to the airport,” I said without providing a direction to steer. “Overfly it at our current altitude, and I’ll take over when we pass overhead.”
He turned toward the airport, and when we were directly above it, I handled the controls but asked him to leave his hand on the stick and feet on the pedals as we landed. Then he taxied back to the hangar and shut the engine down.
Kisielewski is vice president of Operation Second Chance, a non-profit that helps wounded combat veterans and their families – a job that keeps him extraordinarily busy. He’s also a husband and father.
It hasn’t been determined whether he’ll receive an Able Flight scholarship, or if he does, whether he’ll have time to pursue full-time flight training. But I have no doubt that he’ll succeed if he does dedicate himself to it, and I’m certain that he can contribute greatly to the strength of our flying community.
I told him what a privilege it was to meet with him and fly with him, and I thanked him for his incalculable sacrifices. He said he appreciates the gratitude, but it really isn’t necessary.
“Believe me when I say that I’m the lucky one,” he said. “I had one bad day, but the truth is I’ve received much more from my country than I’ve given.”
I once heard a veteran FAA examiner claim that he could tell the outcome of any checkride by the time a candidate starts the airplane and taxies to the runway for departure. I’m sure that’s true for checkrides, but the people I fly with constantly surprise me.
And sometimes, as with Kisielewski, those unexpected moments are humbling, inspiring, and unforgettable.