Leslie Irby always had big dreams for herself. From a young age she believed she would compete at the Olympic level in swimming, fencing or judo, always planning to make a wave in the sports world – until she fell in love with aviation. At 16, Irby’s parents, who had always set an example for her with their hard work, signed her up for a summer program through ACE. After her first flight, which happened to be in a Piper Comanche, she knew she caught the aviation bug. She was then selected to be among an elite group of student pilots and was given the opportunity to fly at Falcon Field, also known as Atlanta Regional Airport, in Peachtree City, GA, where she was able to fly the Diamond DA-20.
At 23, Irby’s plans were paused after she was in a car accident that left her with a spinal cord injury. In Irby’s words, “It didn’t register to me that I was actually hurt as badly as I was. After the doctors explained it to me, I was actually okay with the news, because on the other hand, while two people had lost their lives, my life was just altered. So what did I have to complain about? I am blessed! This is my blessing, not a burden, and if this is the life God has blessed me with then I am grateful. I never looked at it as a burden because I know the day where I celebrate my life, someone’s loved ones are mourning their loss. I never lost my identity despite what was happening to me. When I was told that I would be in a wheelchair, I asked them if they had a pink one, which they thought was hilarious because they never had a request like that! They told me they had some pink TheraBand’s that I could wrap around the chair and that is exactly what I did, I’ve always had a positive outlook and I just try to make the best out of life. You are the captain on your fate, so the choice will always be yours to either let obstacles define you or defy those same odds.”
Getting back into aviation was as simple as a Google search for Irby. She decided one day to search “flight programs for people with disabilities” and found Able Flight. After finding it, she quickly applied for a scholarship and found out she was awarded one a few months later. Able Flight’s mission is to “offer people with disabilities a unique way to challenge themselves through flight and aviation career training, and by doing so, to gain greater self-confidence and self-reliance.” Irby attended the Able Flight program at Purdue University, in a vigorous seven week program before graduating on June 28, 2019 as a licensed sport pilot. She started each day of the program by listening to Mariah Carey’s Nobody Can Take That Away From Me while eating with a blueberry muffin and drinking a glass of orange juice. This routine got her ready to “fight another day” and helped her focus on her mission – completing the program! Each morning started with a 7 a.m. flight, followed by one-on-one instruction. She got a break for lunch, followed by two hours of ground school. If weather allowed (because Indiana is know for afternoon summer storms!) she would take an afternoon flight, followed by dinner and ended the day in study hall from 7 to 9 p.m. each evening – repeating this schedule for all seven weeks of the program!
By completing the Able Flight program and earning her sport pilot license, Irby became the first African American female paraplegic pilot, breaking barriers for future pilots to follow in the future. When asked, “What is it like to break barriers?” she responded, “One word, AMAZING! When I set out to accomplish a dream I had started over 13 years ago, I did not know what was to be the outcome. I only knew I wanted to become a licensed pilot. With a little research, I found out that no other African American woman has done what I had set out to do. At that point, it became clear to me that this goal of mine was much bigger than just myself. I was able to pave the way for other brown girls with differing abilities to become pilots. The fun part about this my trail blazing journey is there aren’t many rules. I am figuring things out day by day. When challenges arise, I figure out how to solve them for me and these also become solutions for the next generation of pilots! Everyday isn’t glitter and rainbows, but I will never stop this train because I want more girls to see people like me represented within the aviation industry. We are magical in so many ways, it can’t even be put into words. I am grateful for this platform I have to now be able to be a “role model” for other girls with differing abilities to look up to and hope one day to have my contributions to aviation recognized among the greats such as Bessie Coleman.”
It can seem like a big step for young girls to take to get into an industry that is currently dominated by men, like the aviation industry. Irby advises that female pilots stay the course, “you know the destination, so enjoy the journey and stay the course. Your road may not be like the boys around you, but we all know our magic can withstand the hardest pressures. We are all rooting for you both near and far. Where you are going – we have all been there – and the torch will forever be illuminated because of the magic we possess is within each of us – that’s the secret! Nobody can dim your flame baby girl, because it is internal! Now go off and be great. See you at the finish line, sis!”
After earning her sport pilot license, Irby experiences commercial flights in a totally different way. “As a pilot, I am more aware of what is going on in flight. I run through preflight procedures in my head and listen for certain pilot briefings. In my mind while on flights I think of myself as the captain and what I would do if I were on duty. I have an even greater love and appreciation for pilots because I am now one of them.”
COVID-19 slowed down pretty much everything in the aviation industry. Irby had planned to begin a program to become an Airline Dispatcher, but this has been postponed – for now! Since earing her sport pilot license in 2019, Irby has been working with the FAA to be approved for her 3rd Class Medical Certificate. She now has her SODA waiver and medical and is working towards the requirements to earn her private pilot license! While COVID-19 slowed down the aviation industry, she decided to pursue another one of her life long passions, hair. In October 2020, she opened The Loc Doc Hair Salon – which has been booked and busy since opening!
Hoping to keep up with Irby and see where her dreams take her? Follow her on Instagram at @idle_but_wild to see some of life’s random moments and adventures! Who knows, maybe one day, she’ll be able to follow another dream, buy a Piper Comanche and start a flight school instructing other differently abled pilots!