OCEAN COUNTY – A group of local aviation enthusiasts has undertaken an ambitious project to build a customized aircraft for Jessica Cox, an Arizona-based pilot born without arms.
The fifteen volunteers involved in this endeavor are all members of EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) Chapter 898 out of the Ocean County Airport. Many are also actively engaged in the Ocean Air Support Squadron (OASS), a volunteer group dedicated to conducting sunset patrols along the coastline throughout the summer.
More than a decade ago, Guinness World Records recognized Cox as the first woman to fly an airplane with her feet. Cox has consistently proven that even the sky poses no limits for her.
At first glance, it may appear counterintuitive that Cox would choose to fly a 1940s vintage ERCO Ercoupe airplane. However, Cox and her husband, Patrick Chamberlain, credit the ERCO developers with an early iteration of technology that continues to facilitate flying for individuals with disabilities.
The beginning of Cox’s association with the Ocean County group unfolded when she encountered others who owned the same type of aircraft that she initially piloted.
Gene Bunt serves as a member of EAA Chapter 898 and is also one of the OASS pilots. As luck would have it, Bunt’s additional position as the director of the Ercoupe Owners Club proved advantageous when Cox found herself in need of local assistance.
“I have known Jessica for many years through the Ercoupe Owners Club,” acknowledged Bunt. “She attends many of our events and conferences.”
On March 18, 2022, Cox and her husband flew to the east coast and safely touched down at JFK International Airport. The couple’s usual sense of joy after a successful flight was short-lived when a jet turned sharply next to them, nearly flipping their plane.
“It might not have been an intentional act, but it was definitely a negligent one,” Chamberlain shared. “Jessica’s plane looked like a New York City taxicab. It’s bright yellow, white and has black checker marks. There’s no way they didn’t see it.”
Cox and Chamberlain had fortunately left the plane for a quick break. However, they came back to huge concerns regarding harm to the aircraft. Given his familiarity with their type of plane and their location, Bunt seemed like the obvious person to reach out to for help.
The call achieved an immediate response as if a family member was in need. Bunt arranged for a mechanic who worked on his personal aircraft to come out to check the extent of the damage. Meanwhile, the interaction over the course of a few days led to some interesting conversations.
Cox and Chamberlain told Bunt about a project they were considering even before the incident that brought them together. The couple had decided to explore alternatives for replacing the aircraft. The 1946 ERCO was not really designed to last as long as it had, and there were other issues.
“Jessica has to sit in basically a crunch,” said Chamberlain. “So, she’s sitting crisscross with one foot on the yoke and the other foot on the throttle. She’s very flexible and very adept at using her legs. But she has a thirty-minute time limit and then needs to be on the ground.”
Amidst the pandemic, the couple took the initiative to approach a kit manufacturer with what they deemed a “crazy idea.” They inquired whether Van’s Aircraft would be open to either modifying one of their existing planes or donating one. The rest is history, with the manufacturer agreeing to supply the kit for an aircraft that would better accommodate Cox.
Building a new plane required more than just gathering the necessary parts. Finding someone with the expertise to put them together was also a challenge. Bunt’s unexpected encounter with the couple proved to be quite serendipitous when he mentioned the possibility of connecting them with someone with the exact experience they needed.
“Gene told us he might know a guy and connected us with Bob,” Chamberlain said. “One of the first planes Bob built with his son was the RV-10, which is the same one we wanted to build and modify.”
Dr. Robert Newman began building planes in 1980. After retiring as the Superintendent of the Ocean County Vocational Technical School District, he found more time to dedicate to his craft. Newman eagerly embraced the proposed project, which will mark his involvement in successfully completing a remarkable total of eleven planes.
Cox admitted that she was elated when Newman and his crew of volunteers decided to take on the daunting task of building her plane. The group started last August with constructing the first ever designed “for foot” flight.
A few weeks ago, EEA Chapter 898 members organized a barbeque in one of the airport hangars so everyone could meet Cox. Joining the celebration was her husband and Cox’s faithful service pup, Chewy.
Several assembled parts of the aircraft were proudly showcased within the hangar gathering. Newman drew attention to a pair of elevators, which will be located at the back of the plane. Additionally, sections of the tail had already been completed, while the preassembled wings remained stored in a crate.
A team of engineering students from the University of Arizona has weighed in with some suggestions for modifications to the standard aircraft. They’ve been working on the schematic design for the plane’s controls. The team has come up with concepts that still need to be polished.
An essential goal of this particular aircraft design is to document favorable and unfavorable ideas thoroughly. The intention behind this is to avoid the necessity for other pilots with disabilities to start the design process anew.
“We expect we’ll be done building the plane in two more years,” shared Newman. “The fuselage is due in August, and by fall, we’ll start having what looks like an airplane. Right now, it’s all in pieces.”
As Cox extended her heartfelt gratitude to the members of the EEA, she effortlessly captivated them with her compelling story. The group found great inspiration from the charismatic woman who has journeyed worldwide as a motivational speaker – focusing on possible thinking to achieve the impossible.
Now 40, Cox began flying at the age of 25, simply because it was a fear she wanted to overcome. Cox also has a black belt in Taekwondo, drives a car with her feet, and has mastered several other accomplishments. Cox has not used prosthetics since she was 14 years old.
“From the beginning, I was blessed with a wonderful set of parents who always told me I could do anything,” Cox said. “That’s not true for everyone with a disability. We want to be that example for children with disabilities when they’re so impressible.”
In addition to showing up around the world to inspire others, Cox has grand plans. Her big goal is to fly the finished airplane over the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2028 in Los Angeles. She’s hoping other pilots with disabilities will join her in formation over the games.
Ocean County Commissioner Director Joseph H. Vicari, Commissioner Gary Quinn, and Ocean County Sheriff Michael Mastronardy all came to the airport to meet Cox in person. Vicari made a special presentation in his capacity as the Ocean County Airport manager.
“As a former educator for 40 years, one of the things we always teach everyone in the classroom is to reach high and reach your fullest potential,” Vicari said. “Sometimes a disability can overcome someone even with a lot of opportunities. Jessica has shown that she could reach for the stars and is an inspiration to me and everyone.”
Those interested in learning more about Jessica Cox should visit her website at jessica.cox.com. In addition, a 2015 documentary called “Right Footed” provides even more inspirational details about this remarkable woman’s journey and is available on Prime Video.