Unbounded after an accident leaves her paralyzed, Black woman achieves milestone

Leslie Irby is realizing her dream of becoming a pilot and is reportedly the first disabled African American woman to earn her pilot's license

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A woman who was paralyzed in an auto accident six years ago has overcome her physical challenges to become the first known African-American woman with a disability to receive a pilot’s license. 

Leslie Irby, 29, an aviation buff for much of her life, had her first taste of the pilot’s cockpit at age 16 when she flew her first plane through a program called Aviation Career Enrichment (ACE) that helps African-American children gain exposure in aviation, according to inspirational news-oriented website Because Of Them We Can.

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“Through that program, I was selected to participate in an elite group of aviators to be a part of a summer flight line program at Falcon Field, in Peachtree City (Georgia),” she told the website. “Through that experience I was able to fly a more streamline aircraft (Diamond 20) and gain more flight hours.”

Although Irby knew her dream would come to life, she encountered a life-changing experience in 2013, where she was involved in a car accident, which killed two people leaving two others paralyzed. 

Irby was one of paralyzed survivors of the crash, sustaining an L3 spinal cord injury, leaving her forced to use a wheelchair.

“The first day I was told I would be in a wheelchair, the therapist came in my room and I asked, ‘Do you all have a pink one I can borrow?’ ” Irby said. “They all laughed, but I knew this wasn’t going to be bad, this was going to be a new start, so why not be myself through it!”

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The incident did not stop her from pursuing her dreams, instead, she considers her wheelchair a blessing, since it leads her back to pursue a career in aviation.

“One day while flying I had the epiphany that I should be the one flying myself to some of these places,” she said. “‘Why spend hundreds of dollars on an airline when I can fly myself?’”

That’s when the the aspiring pilot decided to participate in a program called Able Flight, that helps people with disabilities gain experience in the cockpit.

In what she considers “a sign from God,” Irby was accepted into the program, receiving a scholarship. Through her experience and training, she successfully completed her first flight alone on June 1 and received her sports pilots license on June 28th.

She has now joined a group of successful, courageous Black women female pilots, including her idol, Bessie Coleman.

“Bessie Coleman was the first African American female to relieve a pilots license,” she said. “Through conversation and historians, there is not an African American female pilot on record with a disability. This would make me the first!”

Irby is not stopping anytime soon. She said has plans to get a private pilot license and also wants to be a role model for those who want to follow in her footsteps. 

“My wheelchair is my blessing, I have so much more rockin n’ rollin to do!” she said.