Deaf pilot from northeast Ohio breaks barrier

AKRON, Ohio - A former Wall Street banker with a dream to fly became the first deaf pilot to earn an instrument rating from the Federal Aviation Administration.

The rating means that Stephen Hopson, who was born deaf, is allowed to fly in bad weather where visibility is low.

FAA regulations had not previously allowed deaf pilots to obtain instrument ratings because they require two-way verbal communication with air traffic controllers to guide them.

But Hopson, 45, completed his flight exam Friday, about four months after starting lessons with the American Winds Flight Academy in Akron.

"This is a dream come true," said Hopson, who learned to speak and lip read as a child.

Hopson obtained federal permission to seek the rating. He then moved from Michigan to Akron and began working with the academy to develop a method for him to communicate with the ground, said American Winds President Mike Kolomichuk.

They came up with this: Hopson flies with another instrument-rated pilot who relays orders from air traffic control using shorthand messages on a dry erase board.

The co-pilot acts only as a messenger and has no decision-making control, Kolomichuk said.

American Winds is working with other flight schools, including one in Scottsdale, Ariz., to help other deaf pilots pursue instrument ratings.

"This is just knocking down one more barrier pilots who are hearing impaired have to put up with," Kolomichuk said.

Of the 618,000 pilots nationwide, only 73 are deaf, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory. But no others have earned instrument ratings, and they are allowed to fly only under ideal weather conditions.

Communication technology that could make it easier for deaf pilots to obtain instrument ratings is on the horizon, said Henry Kisor of Evansville, Ill., a former officer of the International Deaf Pilots Association who said he considers Hopson a pioneer.

Such speech-to-text technology also would help clear crowded airwaves, making flight communication safer, Kolomichuk said.

Hopson has a hearing aid but is only able to detect some sounds. He cannot distinguish language.

He said earning the rating has been a dream come true. Hopson had previously earned his private and commercial licenses and worked as an aviation safety counselor near Detroit.

Although he expressed an early love for flight, his parents pushed him toward other pursuits. He worked as a Merrill Lynch stockbroker and later became a motivational speaker.

Hopson hopes to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, according to his Web site. He also wants to fly jets and multiengine planes. He now is able to fly only single-engine crafts.

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