"Chocks away!" Karen finds new independence at 3,000 ft

“When you're up there you can't think about anything else. It feels cliché to say you feel free but you do.”


You have probably dreamt about flying before. Imagined yourself drifting off through the trees and up past the clouds, until you’re looking down at the world below. For many of us, flying will remain just a dream. I am happy to have experienced flying vicariously through Karen Cox – a 2016 Flying Scholarships for Disabled People (FSDP) scholar. Karen, who has fibromyalgia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and osteoarthritis, is just one of 400 people the charity has trained since it began in 1983. The group, set up in memory of disabled WW2 fighter pilot Sir Douglas Bader, offers a fully funded three-week light aircraft training course for adults with disabilities in the UK. Their aim? To inspire confidence and change lives.


Karen and I spoke via video chat on Tuesday and discussed her struggle with not feeling disabled enough, being away from home, and the immense changes Karen and others have noticed since her time at FSDP began. It all started, she tells me, in 2014. “A friend of mine had done one [a Flying Scholarship]. He had been chatting about it and he was sort of saying you know, 'Do you fancy it? Are you going to do it?' …to be honest, I applied to keep him quiet!”.


The mother of three felt like she did not deserve a scholarship. “I'm not in a wheelchair, I'm not on crutches, I'm not paralysed… it was like, ‘Am I or aren't I [disabled]?’. With an invisible disability you get judged a lot. People are like, 'Well, you could do that last week, why can't you do it this week?' or they see you in a wheelchair and just assume that actually you are faking it.”


Rather than let the ignorance of others discourage her, Karen has come to accept herself and her disability. “I do identify myself as disabled. I realised talking to a lot of the other FSDP members that we all have different disabilities and just because I'm saying, 'Right, I'm disabled', doesn't take anything away from someone.”


I soon learn that flying is not entirely new to Karen. She practically grew up on an airfield, and at 20 years old was manning glider planes solo. “Actually, for most people the flying element is the big part of it – it wasn't for me. It was, 'I know I can do that, that doesn't scare me'. If it had been go and sit on a ship for a week I wouldn't have gone. It just happened to be something that I knew that I would enjoy. Flying didn't scare me. The learning scared me a little bit but the actual act of getting in an aircraft and flying it, it didn't scare me as such.”


For Karen, the challenge wasn’t flying. It was the even greater task of stepping out of her comfort zone. “The flying was the carrot in a way, but being away from my family, to be in a situation that I didn't know, in a place that I didn't know, that was my big challenge. That is what I was determined to overcome, to give me the courage then to go on and be able to do other things. I flew during the week but at the weekend I would make sure I challenged myself. One weekend I took myself off into Stroud on my mobility scooter just to look around town which I would never do.”


Karen’s FSDP experience was the confidence reboot she needed. ‘I would never drive into town because I was scared of getting lost but at Christmas I flew down, I hired a car and I drove across Bristol. I got completely lost, couldn't work the satnav properly and made loads of mistakes. But did it, learnt a lesson.’ It’s hard to ignore the chuffed look on Karen’s face, and I can only imagine the squabbles between her and the satnav during her journey to Bristol.


Not only has the scholarship brought Karen life-long friendships and new levels of self-esteem, she has also landed herself a job. “I'm now writing for a local magazine Lifestyle Moray and based on my blog they got in touch and said would I like to write for them. So, I get paid for writing which I would never have ever had the confidence to do.”


The money Karen earns from articles this year will go towards reaching her FSDP fundraising target of £1000. ‘You can't have that kind of life changing experience [and not give back]. I'm just so incredibly grateful to them. My family are so incredibly grateful to them. My son still can't get over it all, he says the changes, it really is quite incredible. It has made a difference to everybody's lives.’


When my interview with Karen ends, I am reminded of the advice: ‘Do one thing that scares you every day’. Although, I can’t see myself flying a plane anytime soon.


Keep up with Karen’s latest adventures, including a freestyle abseil from the Forth Rail Bridge in October (also, check out her Etsy shop for some colourful crochet planes) -


If you or someone you know are interested in applying to Flying Scholarships for Disabled People visit fsdp.co.uk for more information. Have a look at their social media sites for regular photos and updates: twitter.com/FSFDP, faceboook.com/FlyingScholarshipsForDisabledPeople and on Instagram @flyingscholarships.


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