“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
Do you know who said these famous words? That’s right — Helen Keller, a name synonymous with bravery, intelligence, and tenacity.
Known for the remarkable life she lived despite being blind and deaf, one of her accomplishments has been a subject of hot debate.
Did Helen Keller fly a plane? Is it possible for someone with severe impairments to pilot a plane? And if so, how did Helen Keller fly a plane?
Keep reading below to learn more about this incredible woman and discover (once and for all) if Helen Keller flew a plane.
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Who Was Helen Keller?
Before we discuss the question at hand, let’s get a little background on who Helen Keller was.
An extraordinary American author, lecturer, and advocate for the deaf and blind, Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, USA.
At the age of 19 months, Helen contracted an illness — most likely scarlet fever or meningitis — which left her both deaf and blind.
Despite her disabilities, Helen Keller’s life took a remarkable turn when she met Anne Sullivan, a teacher who would become her lifelong companion and mentor.
Anne Sullivan taught Helen sign language and helped her to understand the world through touch and communication.
With her guidance, Helen learned to read Braille, write, and eventually even speak.
Helen Keller’s intellectual abilities flourished, and she became the first deaf-blind person in history to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.
She also authored several books, including her autobiography, “The Story of My Life,” which detailed her inspiring journey from isolation to academic and humanitarian accomplishments.
Throughout her life, Helen Keller advocated for the rights of people with disabilities and worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the deaf and blind.
She travelled extensively across the globe, giving speeches and lectures, and she became an influential figure in the fields of education and disability rights.
Helen Keller’s determination, resilience, and advocacy left a lasting impact on the world, and she remains an icon of courage and perseverance for people with disabilities globally.
She passed away on June 1, 1968, but her legacy continues to inspire and educate generations of individuals worldwide.
Did Helen Keller Fly a Plane?
We know for certain that Helen Keller wrote books and gave public speeches, but did she really fly a plane?
Here’s a one-word answer: Yes!
The year was 1946, and it was the day after Helen Keller’s 66th birthday. She was in the middle of a humanitarian tour across Europe, speaking for the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind.
Having already visited London, Naples, and Athens, Helen Keller was now en route from Rome to Paris for her next speaking engagement. She was aboard — not a tiny single-engine plane — but a four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster.
This is where the unbelievable happened. Once the pilot reached the shore of the Mediterranean, he invited Helen Keller to sit in the co-pilot’s seat.
Then, for the next 20 minutes, she did the unimaginable: Helen Keller flew a plane!
Is the Story Believable?
Before you brush off this story as mere fiction, remember this: Helen Keller had already done so many things that most people would have considered “impossible.”
Keep in mind that Helen Keller was born in the late 19th century. Electricity was a brand-new invention and wouldn’t become mainstream for another 50 years.
Thomas Edison’s “talking machine” — the first device to successfully record and play back sounds — was invented just three years before Helen Keller was born.
In other words, there was no technology available to assist the blind or the deaf like we have today. For someone who was both blind and deaf, their options were even more limited.
And yet, despite her physical impairments, learned to read, write, and speak by the time she was a teenager.
She could successfully communicate with hearing and sighted people.
She even graduated cum laude in 1904 from Radcliffe College — now known as Harvard University.
While we focus a lot on her early life, it’s equally noteworthy to consider what she accomplished as an adult.
For example, she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union in 1920. She was an early supporter of the NAACP and a staunch opponent of lynchings (then a common practice in the American South). She was also an early proponent of birth control.
To champion the cause of the blind, Helen Keller also travelled to more than 25 countries during her lifetime, including parts of the Middle East, South America, Africa, and East Asia.
When you consider all of these accomplishments, is it so far-fetched to believe that this tenacious woman could also fly a plane?
How Did Helen Keller Fly a Plane?
Now that you know the introduction to the story, let’s dig deeper. How was a deaf-blind person able to safely and successfully pilot a plane?
On that fateful day in 1946, Helen Keller was travelling with her translator and interpreter, Polly Thompson.
Polly communicated with Helen the same way that her original teacher Anne Sullivan did — by pressing symbols into her hand (now known as “tactile signing”).
The pilot remained in his seat as he invited Helen to sit in the co-pilot’s chair. He gave
instructions to Polly Thompson, who then signed the information into Helen’s hand.
According to the original news article, there was no shaking or vibration for the 20 minutes when Helen was in control.
She flew the plane “calmly and steadily” while the crew were “amazed at her sensitive touch on the controls.”
What did Helen have to say about her experience? In the same interview, she relayed, “It was wonderful to feel the delicate movement of the aircraft through the controls.”
Helen Keller Flying a Plane: Testing the Theory
Although Helen Keller’s flying experience is remarkable, she’s not the only deaf-blind person to pilot a plane.
In June 2012, a young woman in Florida, USA, successfully accomplished the same task.
Like Helen Keller, fifteen-year-old Katie Inman is both blind and deaf. Despite her condition, she boarded a Piper Warrior with the flight instructor and her interpreter.
After assisting with the takeoff, the flight instructor handed over control of the plane when they reached an altitude of 2,600 feet.
From the co-pilot’s seat, Katie used one hand to manipulate the flight controls and the other to communicate with her interpreter.
While these experiences teach us that (almost) anything is possible, it’s worth noting that a blind individual cannot qualify for pilot certification.
However, a deaf individual can qualify for a certificate to pilot an aircraft as long as they’re required to communicate with ground control.
Now You Know: Helen Keller Flew a Plane
So, did Helen Keller fly a plane? Or is this just some random story circulating on the internet?
As we’ve discussed, this remarkable feat actually happened! For approximately 20 minutes, this amazing woman took control of an aircraft and safely flew above the Mediterranean Sea — despite being blind and deaf.
How’s that for an inspiring story?
If Helen Keller flew a plane, what can you accomplish in your personal life? Read this post next for your daily dose of inspirational quotes!