How Did Helen Keller Fly a Plane?

In June 1946, an airplane crossed the Mediterranean Sea from Rome to Paris. This flight was not unusual, except for one thing: during the 20-minute flight, a passenger of the plane took over as pilot. Helen Keller was the passenger, an American author and educator who has been deaf and blind since childhood.

Keller was not the first woman to fly. Many women in her generation did not travel by plane, or only rarely. In 1919, Keller flew for the first time as a passenger on the set Deliverance. This biographical film was about her life and she appeared in it. Keller was well-known in the United States and internationally when she was 24. However, some people still doubted her ability to communicate with hearing individuals or graduate college. Both of these things Keller had already accomplished. Deliverance’s producers explained that they wanted to “show her doing all of the things [able-bodied] individuals do” including “scenes where she dresses herself to show that she could, and scenes in which sleeps to prove that she closes their eyes”.

Keller was delighted to be able to fly, even though she knew that the inclusion of this scene in a biographical film was absurd. She often argued with the production crew when they wrote scripts she thought were unrealistic. The event was narrated in a newsreel, perhaps as a promotion for the movie:

Helen Keller has never been afraid of physical action. She learned how to dive into the sea as a young child with a rope around her waist and tied to a stake at the shore. She loves tobogganing down New England’s steep slopes. She knows that anything she does to gain attention will be worth it if she can raise public awareness about the abilities of blind people.

Keller felt more freedom as flight technology advanced. In 1931, Keller was a passenger in an extended flight that took her from Newark, New Jersey, all the way to Washington, D.C., covering a distance of 200 miles (322 km). The trip culminated with a meeting between Keller and the President of the United States. The New York Times reported on the flight and Keller compared the plane to a “great graceful bird sailing in the limitless skies.”

This brings us to 1946, the year Helen Keller flew a plane by herself.

Keller and Polly Thomson (who translated Keller’s words to others, and spoke with Keller by pressing symbols on her hand) traveled to Europe and, later, India and Africa as well as the Middle East, for the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind. Keller took control of the plane’s controls when it crossed the Mediterranean.

She would later tell the story to an Scottish reporter, “by the same method as she had piloted the plane, by hand-talk between [Thomson] and herself.” Thomson signed the pilot’s orders to Keller as Keller, in the copilot seat, took over. Thomson stated that the ‘plane crew was amazed by her delicate touch with the controls. There was no vibration or shaking. Keller sat calmly in the cockpit and flew it steadily.

Although the news media hailed Keller’s flight as a miracle, Keller is not the only deaf and blind person to pilot a plane. In 2012, Katie Inman, 15, who, like Keller used tactile sign languages to communicate, piloted an airplane in Florida. She was assisted by a flight instructor during takeoff and landing. The controls were handed over when the plane reached 2,600 feet (792 meters).

Keller’s life was not the end of skepticism about deafblind people’s abilities. Her reputation as a communicator, activist, writer (and former pilot) helped to remove the stigma associated with blindness. At the start of her career, it was often linked to venereal diseases. Blindness was taboo in women’s magazines before Keller became famous. When she became an international figure, the Ladies’ Home Journal began publishing her articles on disability and blindness. Keller’s writings, lectures, and flight of a plane made it impossible for the public to ignore their ignorance.

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