Flying Deaf

Courtney Bertling at peace while flying the Quicksilver MXL-2 that she built. This is stick and rudder flying! (COURTNEY BERTLING)

Courtney Bertling at peace while flying the Quicksilver MXL-2 that she built. This is stick and rudder flying! (COURTNEY BERTLING)

Posted Tue, April 18, 2023
By Ted Huetter

Jack Busenbark can’t remember when he didn’t want to be a pilot. He loved watching the flow of floatplanes and airliners over his North Seattle neighborhood. “Eye candy,” he remembers. His mom indulged his interest, so when he was ten she did a little research to see how he could someday fulfill his dream to become an airline pilot. “I’ll never forget that day when she came home and told me that it’s impossible, because I’m deaf ” said Jack.

Deaf pilots have flown in the United States since the pioneering days of aviation. In 1911, a charismatic, 32-year-old aviator named Cal Rogers may have been the first. In 1911 he made the first transcontinental flight across the U.S. (it took almost two months over 4000 miles).

In 1928, deaf South Dakotan Nellie Zabel Willhite became the state’s first woman pilot, and probably the first licensed deaf pilot. She became a charter member of The Ninety-Nines, barnstormed and became a ground instructor during World War II. The first licensed male deaf pilot was Edward Thomas Payne, who earned his ticket a few years after Willhite.

Most general aviation aircraft did not have radios onboard until the 1950s, and their use was not even required at airports with control towers. There was a time when radio use was one-way — from the tower. If a plane was in sight of the tower, the controller would try to reach the plane via radio, and if there was no response they would signal with a light gun. That’s when the pilot was obligated to respond by wagging the wings, establishing two-way communication. For many pilots, traffic control was a personal responsibility to “see and avoid” other nearby airplanes. In that regard it didn’t matter if one was deaf. The greatest obstacle to a deaf person aspiring to a be a licensed pilot was finding an instructor who was willing to work with them. It’s a prejudice that continues today.

Eventually the FAA tightened the regulations, stating “pilots operating at controlled airports or in controlled airspace are required to be in radio contact with Air Traffic Control (ATC), or they can use light signals with prior arrangement and approval by the airport control tower management.” This ruled out any chance for a deaf pilot to become an airline pilot, who must be able to sometimes maintain radio far from airports. That’s what young Jack Busenbark’s mother discovered. But this didn’t mean he never become a licensed pilot.

Deaf Private Pilots can either avoid towered airports when they fly, or make special, prior arrangements with the tower so they will be allowed to fly there. Option number one is the usual choice, but as only 500 of the country’s 5,000 airports are tower-controlled, there are plenty of places to fly. All pilots need a valid FAA Medical Certificate to legally use their pilot's license. Deaf pilots also need a “Statement of Demonstrated Ability” just to validate their FAA medical certificate. On paper it is a relatively simple process with a special check-ride with a FAA flight examiner, but sometimes the reality is different, and it can delay or even prevent a deaf person from earning a license.

Jack Busenbark never gave up his dream to fly. He’s now married with two children, living in Texas, and he earned a Private Pilot License in 2017. Becoming a pilot involved a combination of money, education and flying skills just like it would for anybody else on that path. But he also had to find his way in a world that is still doubtful of the deaf.

“It’s not easy finding a flight instructor who will accept you,” Jack told me. It was a common refrain that he learned from other deaf pilots, so he did some homework and finally approached a flight school recommended by a deaf pilot and run by a woman named Beth Jenkins. Jack was welcomed, and since then shares this advice for the deaf community: find a female or minority-run flight school if you want to learn to fly. “Maybe it’s because they’ve experienced another kind of prejudice in the predominately white, male flying community; they are more accepting of the deaf.”

For hearing pilots it is pretty simple to rent a plane at a flight business that doesn’t know you. Some paperwork, conversation and a check-ride. If you are deaf, you might get turned away at the door because nobody wants to fly with you. For this, Jack offers more advice, “establish a good working relationship with an instructor ahead of time. Correspond via email to let them know all about your qualifications as a pilot, and don’t say you’re deaf. When you arrive at the airport office, be well dressed, have all of your documents, be professional and then, well, it’s harder for them to say no. And they’ll find a way to make it work out.” Remember hearing folks, this is just so they won’t get turned away before they have a chance to prove themselves as a pilot.

I’ve also been told that some pilots think that deaf people simply should not fly. The facts show that all pilots should fly more like the deaf ones.

Most airplanes have some sort of audio alarm when the plane is approaching a stall. Stalls are hard to miss with a buzzer blaring in the cockpit, but without the aid of the alarm, instructors can be wary of a deaf pilot’s stall-awareness skills. In a recent FAA publication, flight instructor Russell Maynard tells of a recent check-ride he had with a deaf pilot, saying “I watched him as he set the aircraft up for slow flight, beautifully transitioning into a power-off stall. His awareness of what the aircraft was doing was a true joy to witness.”

A hearing pilot can keep tabs on the in-flight health of a plane’s engine by its sound; a deaf pilot like Jack is more attuned to its vibrations and is even attuned to the way it smells. Deaf pilots may also have another advantage: research by the U.K.’s University of Sheffield shows that adults born deaf react more quickly to objects at the edge of their visual field than hearing people. These add up to a natural gift for situational awareness that any pilot would crave.

Deaf pilot Courtney Bertling celebrates grass roots aviation with ultralights and Light-Sport Aircraft. She’s proof that it is never too late to achieve your dream of flying—she didn’t make her first flights until she was 60 in 2017, when she found an instructor at Boeing Field who would get her started. During the next four years she became a Certified Advanced Ground Instructor, a Certified Sport Pilot (CSP) and built her own Quicksilver MXL-2 Light-Sport Aircraft.

As a Certified Sport Pilot she does avoid the hassle or heartbreak of the FAA special medical waiver needed for deaf Private Pilots. The only FAA medical requirement for the CSP is a valid driver’s license.

Courtney’s story is a pathway for all aspiring pilots, not just the deaf. Her YouTube videos are told in captioned American Sign Language, and the content is universal. They are instructional and fueled with an infectious passion for flight. “I’m trying to inspire people to fly,” she told me, “something I wish someone had done for me twenty years ago.” With her Facebook Group she aspires “to be welcoming to all kinds of pilots — let's just get people flying! Whether ultralight, sport pilot or private, let's just fly! You can always advance to Private Pilot if you'd like, and in the meantime you're already flying. So that's what I've been doing. Let's go flying!”

For all types of information about being a deaf pilot the Deaf Pilots Association website is a handy resource. And for flying tips, stories and videos in ASL, I recommend Courtney Bertling’s Facebook page and YouTube channel, Courtney Takes Flight.


[As appeared in the March/April 2022 issue of Aloft, the Member magazine at The Museum of Flight. Get new issues of Aloft delivered to your door by becoming a member! Membership information and benefits are at this link: Explore the Aloft archives at this link:]

Topics: Pilot, Women, Safety