HE WOULDN’T GIVE UP HOPE
Ben Stam’s obsession to overcome his handicap made him the first paraplegic to earn a Canadian pilot’s licence.
By Doug Jansen
Good Friday, 1968.
The dawning sun was somewhere up there above the drizzle and ragged low cloud, but Ben Stam didn’t mind. Ahead lay a hike in the country with his girl friend, Ria, and some teenage pals.
Later, near Chilliwack, the happy group was pushing through the bush towards Bridal Falls.
And then the earth gave way beneath Ben Stam’s feet. He didn't fall far, but it was far enough. A friend who had fallen with him got up and brushed himself off, uninjured. But Ben couldn’t move. The pain in his chest and back was acute.
Rescue came two hours later. It was Chilliwack Hospital first, then to Vancouver General for more exhaustive testing. But eventually the doctors gave him the news: his spine had been permanently damaged. Ben Stam, 17, was a paraplegic.
“The world collapsed when I heard the doctor’s pronouncement,” Ben said in a recent interview. “The thought of being condemned to life in a wheel chair was crushing, almost more than I could bear. But what could I do?”
After a year in hospitals and a rehabilitation centre, Ben had resigned himself to his fate, and rejoined a now restricted world. But he had a job, as an assembler of electronic equipment at Lenkhurt Electric.
“One of my colleagues, Hank Oudman, was also a paraplegic,” said Ben. Hank had been a pilot in the Royal Netherlands Air Force and had logged 1,500 hours before a swimming accident left him as a paraplegic. He used to talk about flying, but doubted whether he would ever fly a plane again.
But Hank’s beautiful descriptions of the world of flight had filled Ben Stam with a persistent longing. Flying … a chance to spring from the confining wheel chair, to snap the bonds that glued him to the earth, to perform with muscular arms the chores that useless legs could not.
Ben Stam discovered that he had to fly and enlisted Hank Oudman’s help. They contacted the Ministry of Transport in Vancouver and were delighted when MoT officials told them they could not see any obstacles to prevent them from obtaining pilots’ licences. And then came the first blow. The officials were wrong, as this reply to Ben’s application for a student pilot permit revealed: ‚
“Dear Sir: After careful consideration of all the information available concerning your physical condition, we regret to advise you that your medical examination report has been categorized medically unfit for the issue or renewal of a civil pilot licence...”
Just like that. A guy is burning with the desire to fly and because some bureaucrat looks at a doctor’s report and finds that the guy has two bum legs, he doesn’t fly.
But Ben, who had already learned to live without his legs, wasn’t about to let a form letter deter him. He and Hank wrote letters, letters and more letters and learned that in the U. S., Ben could obtain a medical waiver and fly U. S. registered aircraft.
A top medical man in the FAA confirmed this discovery. His letter, along with another from a paraplegic association which had joined the fight, were submitted to the MoT with Ben’s new application for a student permit. On Nov. 10, 1969, 20 months after his original application had been refused, Ben received this letter:
“Dear Sir: We have now been advised by our Ottawa headquarters that following a review of your medical documents it is possible that you could be assessed a medical profile of P-1-1-1 for Private Licence Only, providing that you satisfactorily complete a practical test. Accordingly, you are requested to contact this office in order that suitable arrangements could be made.”
Ben could have been forgiven for wishing a pox on the bureaucrat who had turned him down without further investigation 20 months before, but he was too wrapped up in the opportunity the second MoT letter opened up for him.
At this stage, Ben’s colleagues at Lenkhurst Electric decided to help. Using the Miles for Millions idea, they pushed him in his wheel chair up Burnaby Mountain, a steep, six-mile climb. And they raised $800 from sponsors, all from among Lenkhurt’s 1,000 employees.
Now it was up to Ben to decide what type of aircraft to train in. Again, he gobbled up all available literature and found that a William Blackwood, of California, also a paraplegic, had developed a hand control for paraplegics that could be fitted to a Piper Cherokee.
“We submitted the details to the MoT and they approved of it,” said Ben.
The hand control attaches to the vertical post assembly of the left rudder on the right side, and its threaded fittings enable it to be adjusted.
The control is operated on the leverage principle. A downward force applies left rudder and an upward force applies right rudder.
Primary function of the control is to allow the pilot to control the rudders and throttle simultaneously during most manoeuvres, including take-offs and landings.
The men at Lenkhurt stepped in again. They discussed Ben’s situation with Ed Batchelor, manager and CFI of Skyways Air Services at Langley, and got Ben a 50 per cent reduction in the cost of instruction.
“Skyways was fairly hard on me right from the start,” Ben chuckled. It was, perhaps, a good idea. His final dual check ride would be conducted by an MoT man, not the CFI.
“We were much tougher with Ben than we are with the average student,” said Batchelor. “It was a precautionary measure. We couldn’t afford to have him fail, because we were thinking of other paraplegics who are expected to follow his lead.”
Ed Batchelor flew with Ben on the first couple of flights to satisfy himself that, all other things considered, Ben did have the ability to learn to fly. Then he turned his enthusiastic student over to instructors Bob Mc-Gonigal and Rod Mclnnes, all the while keeping a close eye on things himself to make sure that high standards were being maintained.
“Before Ben’s final test, I took him for an unofficial ride to satisfy myself that he had achieved higher-than-average standards,” said Ed Batchelor. “We were delighted.” So was Jack Lingham, the MOT inspector who took a fearful Ben Stam for his first official check ride after 12 hours of dual instruction. “It will be my pleasure,” said Jack Lingham after the ride, “to recommend you.”
And Ben Stam became the first Canadian paraplegic to win the privilege to fly.
What followed was almost an anti-climax. Lingham’s recommendation went to Ottawa and soon Ben was flying solo.
“It was beautiful,” said Ben.
Finally, the long-awaited day when his Private Pilot Licence arrived. “It was a tremendous relief to know that I had not failed the many people who had placed their trust in me to further improve the lot of the paraplegic,” he said.
Other paraplegics have been in touch with Ben and Skyways to inquire about flying. Ben will give them their first airplane ride. Ben is married to Ria now and they have two children. But there is still one more hurdle to cross, and that is to get Ria flying, too. His son has been up with him “but trying to persuade Ria to do likewise is hard work.”
Canadian Aviation, April 1971
Ben Stam 1940-2012