Jessica Cox is the first pilot certified to fly only with her feet.

Armless Pilot Jessica Cox Will Fly Around the World

The motivational speaker plans to use her aircraft to motivate disabled children to reject the notion of physical limitations.

Jessica Cox is the first pilot certified to fly only with her feet. Now she wants to become the first armless person to fly around the world.

A motivational speaker, author, disability advocate, and philanthropist, Cox earned her light-sport pilot certificate in 2008, flying a 1946 ERCO Ercoupe. Built to go low and slow, the two-seat aircraft has ailerons interconnected with the rudder, which means disabled pilots can fly it with their feet off the floor using only the control yoke.

Cox vividly remembered her first solo flight while speaking with BJT in the Homebuilt Hangar at this year’s EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. “I felt like I was on top of the world," she said. "I was never more focused in my life. My heart was pounding and I was excited and nervous at the same time." Today, Cox counsels others with physical disabilities who want to enjoy life in the cockpit.

Flying is far from her only accomplishment. When she was 14, Cox earned her first black belt from the International Taekwon-Do Federation. After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Arizona, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology. At the university, Cox joined an ATA Martial Arts club (formerly known as the American Taekwondo Association) and became the first armless person to earn a black belt in the ATA.

In 2012, she married her Taekwondo instructor, Patrick Chamberlain, who also is a pilot and today serves as her business manager. Cox’s other hobbies include surfing and scuba diving. She credits her parents for instilling her with the confidence that she could “do anything.”   

All of Cox’s avocations require a certain amount of discipline, but she doesn’t necessarily see discipline as the most important factor for anyone with disabilities to lead a fulfilling life. Focusing on discipline “is a little limiting,” said Cox, who authored a book titled “Disarm Your Limits.”

“To be quite honest, I’m one of the least disciplined people,” Cox said. Rather, she cites perseverance and the ability to “think outside the shoe” (as opposed to the box) that allows her to get things done. “Ultimately, motivation has to come from within.”

Cox spoke with BJT in front of the cockpit of a wrecked Van’s Aircraft RV-10 kit plane that she and her team of volunteers are using to test a variety of customized seats, flight control systems, and doors that could make aviation more accessible to people with disabilities. These components will be fitted to a new-build RV-10, a low-wing, four-seat aircraft that a local EAA chapter in New Jersey is building for Cox with help from engineering students. It is the airplane Cox intends to start flying in 2025 and hopes to fly around the world in 2028, culminating with overflights of the International Olympic and Paralympic Games in Los Angeles that summer.

Cox calls it her “impossible airplane.” It features a pair of blue Crocs attached to the rudder pedals, which control the pitch, roll, and yaw axes. Floor-mounted levers between the pedals control throttle and the flaps. Plans call for modern glass panel avionics with optional voice controls for settings like radio frequencies and cabin environmental controls.

Switches inside and outside the aircraft electrically activate the left-seat pilot’s gullwing door, while sensors prevent the door from opening during flight. The right-seat pilot position will be fitted with conventional flight controls, allowing Cox's husband, Patrick, and other pilots to fly the aircraft as well. Besides the around-the-world trip in 2028, Cox plans to use the aircraft to motivate disabled children to reject the notion of physical limitations.

Advocating for disabled children is a passion for her. To that end, in 2017, she founded the Rightfooted Foundation International (RFI), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. One of RFI’s first projects was a YouTube video series called “Life With Feet.” The first episode, which highlights how Jessica and her friend Tisha navigate life without arms, quickly garnered more than 750,000 views. 

Cox thinks universal design and artificial intelligence hold enormous promise for assisting the disabled to lead fuller lives, but she believes more work needs to be done to equalize opportunities both in the U.S. and abroad so that “everyone feels included”—a message she delivers on her international speaking tour.

People with disabilities, Cox said, “want to work, want to be able to provide for themselves and their families, [and] want to have a feeling of independence and empowerment. Getting up every day and doing something gives you a purpose.”

Jessica Cox has let nothing stand in the way of finding hers.