OTTUMWA — A horrific motorcycle accident years ago hasn't stopped one Indian Hills student from fulfilling his dream of becoming a pilot.
Scott Miller was a young National Guardsman riding his motorcycle home to Albia from drill in Des Moines when he hit a pothole and flew onto nearby railroad tracks, snapping his back at the T9 and T10 vertebrae, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Miller, now 25, is now in the midst of aviation pilot training at Indian Hills Community College. His father's career as a helicopter mechanic with the U.S. Marine Corps always interested Miller, but actually learning to fly was never part of his plan.
That was until he went to an annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., where he learned that a friend's father was a paraplegic and owned his own air ambulance business.
"He wasn't paralyzed his whole life either," he said. "He flew planes and started a small charter company with a buddy. He came down and landed too hard and broke his back and ended up paralyzed."
Eventually, an instructor took Miller on a flight for a couple hours over Sturgis.
"I was hooked ever since," he said.
A few days after returning from Sturgis last year, Miller called Jane Berg, Indian Hills' chief flight instructor, less than two weeks before the fall term began.
He asked if there was any way he could still get into the 21-month program. Yes, she said, but you'll need medical clearance.
Well, he said, I'm in a wheelchair. But that didn't deter Berg from letting him in the program.
Since Indian Hills didn't have the hand control apparatus when Miller started school in August, assistant chief flight instructor Jim Anderson started training him in the simulator. Finally, earlier this year, Miller received medical clearance.
"The biggest hurdle was not paralysis, it was that he had [a history of] kidney stones," Berg said.
Miller did some more research on what it would take for him to fly. Since a Cessna plane has a rudder and brakes — as opposed to only a rudder — hand controls are much more difficult to find.
Bill Kyle, an aviation expert in Charles City, was able to reverse-engineer the controls and on Feb. 6, Miller and Anderson went to Charles City to have the hand controls installed. Because Miller was technically in the line of duty when he got in the accident in 2006, his military benefits through vocational rehabilitation have paid for his education and the hand controls.
Two brackets clamp onto the top and two others are fixed on the bottom of the pedals, which allows Miller to move them left and right to steer and pull up to tilt the pedals forward to brake. He does every other maneuver as any pilot would, since everything else is hand-controlled.
"There's been some challenges, but nothing that was too difficult," he said. "Jane and Jim and everybody here has been more than great supporting me."
He's already overcome the biggest hurdles, Anderson said, since he's flown solo. Now, he's preparing to fly cross-country and at night.
During pre-flight, Anderson helps Miller check the things he can't reach, such as the oil. In fact, the hardest part for Miller isn't flying, Anderson said, it's getting in the plane.
But he doesn't like to ask for help. If his wheelchair rolls away, he'd rather crawl to get it than ask someone to get it for him. And more often than not, he's the one helping someone else. Pulling cars and trucks out of ditches in the winter is practically a full-time job, he said.
"You're pretty humble," Berg said to Miller. "He's done a tremendous job with the circumstances. He's very positive. I told him initially, if I ask you a dumb question, please excuse me because I don't know. This is a learning experience for us here at Indian Hills. I just think he's a real inspiration to all of us. At that point he could've let the world get him down, but he has not, and I think that says something for him."
The flight instructors have helped his confidence, he said.
"A group like this who believes in you and encourages you is what makes me have the drive to keep going," he said. "I'd say everybody here is probably more confident in my abilities than I am."
But, Berg pointed out, they don't cut him any slack. He's treated like any other student.
"I wouldn't want it either," he said. "I don't want any special treatment."
Last week, he completed his stage check with Berg, during which he was tested on everything he's learned up to this point: pre-flight, starting the plane, taxiing, take-off, using the radio, leaving the pattern, doing stalls, emergency procedures, landings, etc.
Once he graduates, Miller's open to anything besides airlines or jets. Someday, he wants to own his own airplane.
"Then I can get a low-wing plane that's easier to get in and out of, be able to put the chair in myself," he said. "I could do anything from charter flights to flight instruction. I've thought about crop dusting a little bit; I've thought about banner towing. Firefighting is another avenue that would probably take more work to get into."
And his accident seven years ago hasn't scared him away from motorcycles either. On Saturday, he'll head up to Sturgis yet again. His motorcycle now has electric switches, which allow him to ride it as he normally would have, since he can flip a switch as he pulls up to a stop and it locks the wheels as if he had put his feet down.
While he said he gets frustrated at times, he doesn't fear anything.
"Anybody can do it," Miller said of learning to fly. "It was intimidating at first and there's a lot of it that still is intimidating. Learning the new maneuvers, especially when you're on solos, it all sets in that there's nobody there but you, so you can't just ask Jim what to do ... but it's all fun."
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to twitter.com/chelsealeedavis.