A team of aerospace and mechanical engineering undergrads is working to make an airplane control panel that can be operated by a pilot without arms for its Interdisciplinary Capstone project. The so-called "Impossible Airplane" project is a collaboration between University of Arizona students and alum Jessica Cox, the first armless, licensed pilot in history.
Cox flies by crossing her right foot over to grab the yoke while her left foot crisscrosses to control the throttle on the panel. She has typically flown an Ercoupe low-wing monoplane. However, this plane’s technology is limited, and Cox has her goals set on flying the more complex and powerful RV-10.
"The biggest challenge for our team to overcome is creating a control scheme that can apply the force required to change the pitch, roll, yaw, and braking while at the same time being ergonomic enough so you don’t cramp up your legs," said student project leader Simon Quang Minh Ly, an AME major. “Cox can already fly her Ercoupe solo because the Ercoupe does not have any rudder pedals. But for aircraft that use rudder pedals such as the RV-10, we hope that our control system will provide armless pilots with a way to safely fly solo.”
Ideally, this project will mean Cox can upgrade from the two-person, 85 mph Ercoupe, to the four-person, 200 mph RV-10.
“The design will allow Jessica to do more advocacy for disability. More flying will also hopefully inspire more people to take up aviation to fill the need for pilots, mechanics, and other careers related to aviation,” said Patrick Chamberlain, Cox's husband and director of operations for her motivational services. “We are hopeful that on top of providing a design for future pilots without arms to use, it will also generate ideas toward a more universal design of cockpits.”