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blank 08/31/09 12:09PM Dulles Aviation, Flight Schools, Flight Training, Tammy Duckworth, Wounded Warriors

Tammy Duckworth: War amputee is flying again
'I leave my wheelchair behind up in the air'


 


Tammy Duckworth, the former Black Hawk helicopter pilot who lost both her legs to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq, hoists herself into a single-engine Piper Cherokee.
She turns the key, taxis to a runway, pushes the throttle and pulls back on the yoke to coax the four-seat plane, its propeller whirling, onward and upward.Now it's blue skies for Duckworth, who's flying again.

For the 41-year-old assistant U.S. veterans affairs secretary, flying equals freedom, even if it's not adrenaline-drenched combat duty but sailing over exurban Virginia's forests and farms. "I leave my wheelchair behind up in the air," she says. "It doesn't matter that I'm disabled. It's joy. It's relaxation. It's also a challenge."For the flight last Sunday afternoon, she's accompanied by a flight instructor and wearing only one artificial leg. It's for her left leg, which still has a knee. The single prosthesis works both rudder pedals, making for some fancy footwork at 2,000 feet.What remains of her right leg is three inches of femur, and its full-length prosthesis "gets in the way" while flying. "It's too high an amputation," she says.

For 85 minutes, Duckworth carves the skies, traveling up to 109 m.p.h., and practices turns, stalls and landings. Elementary maneuvers for a student pilot, but exhilarating. "It's joy when I'm back in the aircraft and I'm up in the air," she says, "because this is what I used to do."

Duckworth had logged more than 1,000 hours of flight time over 11 years and had won promotion to major in the Illinois National Guard when her part-time career in military aviation came to a fiery halt on Nov. 12, 2004.
An insurgent blasted her UH-60 "bird" with an RPG that ripped through the cockpit floor and left her body a bloody tangle of flesh and bone. The other pilot got the damaged aircraft down, and got what was left of her out.Duckworth not only gravely injured her legs, but her right arm was practically severed. In Baghdad, a vascular surgeon operated through the night to salvage the arm. "He wasn't about to let me be a triple amputee," she says.By her husband's estimate, it took 20 units of blood to keep her alive.

At one point her heart gave out. "There's no earthly reason I should have survived," she says.Working today in Washington, she is not self-conscious about her wounds or high-tech prostheses, favoring skirts and short-sleeved blazers. She walks either with two artificial legs and a cane -- or she rolls from Point A to Point B in a wheelchair.

Duckworth, who lives in the Washington suburbs, still keeps two Illinois homes, in Hoffman Estates and DeKalb. She was born in Thailand, her father a U.S. military veteran and her mother a native Thai. In childhood, she lived throughout Asia and finished high school in Hawaii. She came to the Chicago area in 1991 to study toward a doctoral degree and work at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.Though her job is in Washington, she relies on Hines VA Hospital near Maywood for medical care.

Proud "that I lost my legs in service to my country," she is also grateful to those who saved her life and supported her during a "surreal" post-war trajectory.She's been going almost full-tilt since her release from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she and other patients took to calling their ward the "amputee petting zoo." It was a scornful nod to some of the VIPs who streamed in and out to meet war casualties and pose for photos. She felt that only some visitors genuinely cared, naming Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, her political mentor, and former Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who was injured in World War II.

Duckworth endured "many, many dozens" of surgeries and underwent therapy at the hospital for more than a year. Early victories, even before learning to walk again: gaining enough strength to brush her teeth and her auburn hair.

After leaving the hospital, she ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006 in a watched-around-the-world campaign won narrowly by Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton, now in his second term. Afterward, Gov. Rod Blagojevich named her head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.Before long, Duckworth was a surrogate for Barack Obama in his presidential race, and even landed a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention. After Obama triumphed, she won the VA job, making plain that she'd work for the VA secretary, retired Gen. Eric Shinseki, even if it meant "mopping the floors." She commands a ninth-floor office with a view of the White House, and swallows hard when the president's Marine One helicopter takes off and lands, remembering her "rotor-head" days.

One of seven assistant secretaries, she oversees the Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs. Among key concerns: homeless vets, the needs of female vets, and the growing number of Vietnam vets retiring from civilian jobs and turning to the VA for medical care.On a recent Sunday, she is in perpetual motion, appearing on "Fox News Sunday" and later hitting a bike trail to log 13 miles in a three-wheeled, hand-crank bike.

Next comes the drive to the Manassas (Va.) Regional Airport, for her second flight lesson since a nine-month lapse in training. Last year she'd built up about 10 hours in a small plane flying out of Springfield until the demands of campaigning for Obama temporarily derailed her quest for a fixed-wing pilot's license.
Duckworth flies out of Dulles Aviation, where a sign urges: "Stop Dreaming. Start Flying."

 Three dozen vehicles fill the parking lot, where her metallic gray Ford F-150, operated using hand controls, is alone with its handicapped plates -- and Purple Heart."It's remarkable what she's doing," says Tom Adams, 71, the company's chief flight instructor. "We've got people who don't have any disabilities but don't like to fly. She is overcoming her handicap."Wanda Tedder, 68, working the counter, chimes in to correct him. "She doesn't think it's a handicap," she says.Duckworth rolls her chair onto the apron and helps instructor Ben Negussie untie the small white plane with a navy belly. They go no farther than Culpeper, Va., but after the lesson, she's glowing -- and not just from the 90-degree heat. Negussie, 40, of Alexandria, Va., has never taught a disabled flier before Duckworth, and judges her performance "at the level of a commercial airline pilot.""I can't stop smiling," says Duckworth, who had only one miscue: She "porpoised" the aircraft once, meaning it bounced off the ground before touching down smoothly.

She repeats a popular aviator quip: "A good landing is when you walk away from your aircraft. A great landing is when you can use your aircraft again."Her aim is to get a license to fly fixed-wing planes in coming months. Next, she wants to fly civilian helicopters. Her current aircraft requires no special modifications for Duckworth, but adaptations may be necessary for her to pilot helicopters.


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