May 16, 2018

Purdue Able Flight program features Paralympian, hopeful astronaut

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — A silver medalist from the Rio Paralympics and an aspiring astronaut are just two of the people selected to take part in this year’s Able Flight program at Purdue.

Students in this year’s Able Flight program arrived on campus on Tuesday (May 15) and went through orientation in Hangar 6 at the Purdue University Airport.

Selected for the program this year are Julia Velasquez of California and Asher Kirschbaum of Maryland, who are both deaf, and Kory Puderbaugh of Arizona and Emily Hupe of California, who both use wheelchairs.

Through the end of June, the students will learn the nuances of piloting a plane in order to earn a light sport pilot license. The training is intensive, with students flying up to three times each day as well as completing initial work in the classroom.

Able Flight instructors develop specific communication methods to pass along information and instructions to students like Velasquez and Kirschbaum while they are in the air. A sign language interpreter also is provided for all of the courses.

Bernie Wulle, associate professor of aviation, has coordinated Purdue’s involvement in the Able Flight program. 

“I really enjoy working with the pilots and, to be honest, I get a lot of out of it,” he said. “I have a lot of fun working with them. I always have this picture in mind of what can be done and these students show up each year and bust that and keep on going.”

This year presents a new challenge as Puderbaugh will be Able Flight’s first quadruple amputee at Purdue. Wulle said the flight instructor will work out how to modify the plane for Puderbaugh, who is member of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby Team.

Most of the students use Sky Arrow LSA planes that can be adapted for hand controls with the instructor sitting behind the student.

Heading to the skies also is the interest of Velasquez, who won the chance to participate last year in a Mars habitat simulation as part of the science-based TV network Xploration Station. Kirschbaum is a recent graduate of the Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf. Hupe is a married mother of seven who is involved her local disabled community.

This is the ninth consecutive year of Able Flight’s partnership with Purdue, the primary training site for the organization.

Able Flight is a national nonprofit organization created by pilots to share the experience of learning to fly and enable people with disabilities to pursue that experience.

Graduates of the Class of 2018 will be guests of honor when they receive their Able Flight Wings on stage July 24 at EAA AirVenture air show. 

Writer: Brian L. Huchel, 765-494-2084, 

Source: Bernie Wulle, 765-494-9973,

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