Flying a plane can be intense at the best of times – you’re hyper aware of your surroundings, intently monitoring your systems and listening closely on your radio for nearby aircraft. It can be a fun but not exactly a relaxing experience.
So on top of all those factors, imagine what it’s like to fly and control a plane with only one hand.
For Lismore pilot and flying instructor Nathan Parker, this is the reality he faces every time he flies.
‘As long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be a pilot,’ he says. ‘I don’t know exactly where that came from.’ No one else in the family flew or was involved in aviation.
‘At the age of six I told my parents, “I want to be a fighter pilot” and from then, everything I did was poured into achieving that goal,’ he says.
‘I started flying at the Northern Rivers Aero Club (NRAC) in Lismore, flying an RAAus-registered Jabiru, and from there kept chipping away at my goals. I finished high school and got accepted into the Royal Australian Air Force. And then the accident shifted the goals a bit.’
The ‘accident’ occurred in 2015 when Nathan found himself pinned down in an overturned bus that was travelling on a quiet country road after a routine military training exercise. He was left with significant injuries including the amputation of his left hand. He describes the event as a ‘roadblock’ in his aviation career.
‘I was very lucky that after 3 months of rehab and a couple of weeks with a new prosthetic hand, I went back to NRAC and they basically threw me in an aircraft with the chief flying instructor and we had a bit of a fly,’ he says. ‘It was enough for me to think, “maybe I could still do this”.’
Nathan flies with the assistance of a ‘robotic’ hand – eat your heart out Steve Austin and the Terminator.
‘It’s pretty high-tech stuff,’ he laughs. ‘I also have a hook which works like an electric set of tongs that allows me to adapt the prosthesis to the aeroplane.
‘Before flying a different type of aircraft, I rehearse in my mind how I’m going to smoothly operate the different controls as I know I have a few different challenges that other people don’t have to face in their flying.
‘I’m also willing to take things slowly and not rush the steps and components I have to do to get into the air. Ultimately, I think it’s helped make me a better pilot’
CASA Wings Awards
It’s clear that Nathan’s perseverance and determination is exactly why he won the 2020 CASA Wings Awards Young Achiever of the Year.
The awards celebrate the achievements of flyers, instructors, clubs and services in the general aviation community.
‘It was a shock, and a bit of a privilege to be even nominated,’ he says. ‘To get a phone call that I had actually received the award was pretty surreal.
‘I don’t see that I’ve done anything different – most people who start out in aviation have completed exactly the same milestones I have. They’ve all had challenges in terms of the study, learning new skills and learning new manoeuvres.
‘If I can use the experiences that I’ve been through to help even just one person overcome their toughest times and transform those to incredible opportunities that I’ve been lucky to have, that’s a real privilege. It makes it almost mean something and it’s my way of giving back and paying it forward.’
Nathan explains he feels privileged to be in the position that he can share his passion for flying with others, despite knowing he won’t fulfil his original goal of flying fast jets in the RAAF.
‘All my life I’ve wanted to be a fighter pilot so when that wasn’t going to be possible anymore, I started looking for the next thing and aerobatics seems the closest,’ he says.
‘I want to tick off those ratings, just to see what I can still do despite the limitations I have and the prosthetics that I have to use.’
When he’s not flying high in the clouds, Nathan also supports a not-for-profit youth program The Hangar, has represented Australia at the Invictus Games and is a highly sought-after motivational speaker. He says he almost feels ‘luckier now’ since the accident in having the opportunity to fulfil different goals.
‘There’s that saying, “When one door closes, another one opens” and I never really believed it, but it certainly turned out to be the case for me.’
More information on the CASA Wings Awards is available at Australian Flying.