TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. --
Combing your hair, washing your face, getting dressed or even keeping your balance. Surfing, obtaining a black belt in tae kwon do and scuba diving. All are things we utilize, even “require,” two arms and two hands for. To an ordinary individual, that’s the norm, that’s what we know.
For Jessica Cox, her normal has never been the same as everyone else’s. Born without arms, Cox has never known life with the same limbs as her classmates, friends or colleagues. But, with a hunger and passion for life, she overcame substantive fears and challenges, determined to live out all of her biggest dreams. She learned how to drink from a glass, unwrap birthday presents and color with crayons just like everyone else – achieving the same goal in a different way.
“When I was on the playground as a little girl, I felt held back from what I wanted to do,” she explained. “I wanted to climb up the 12-foot slide or swing across the monkey bars like all the other kids, but I was prevented from doing those things for fear of hurting myself. So, instead I found myself sitting on the swings. I would close my eyes and envisioned flying high above everyone else.”
Unknowingly, that planted a seed to become the first person to pilot an unmodified airplane with just her feet, subsequently earning a medal from the Guinness World Records.
The journey of obtaining her pilot’s license was, of course, not easy, as she learned to accomplish the most basic things most pilots don’t have to think about. “How do I put on the headset? How do I figure out this four-point harness?” The challenge took her, again, back to that time in grade school when all of the other kids were learning and doing things with their hands that Cox would learn to do with her feet.
Recalling the lesson of tying her shoelaces, Cox learned to perform the same “bunny ears” method demonstrated by her kindergarten teacher. However, rather than learning with her fingers, Cox learned the same exact method with her toes. After a couple thousand tries, the pilot applies the same kind of strategy of “thinking outside the shoe” to every obstacle she meets. Learning the importance of thinking outside the shoe has been a key approach to almost everything she’s accomplished, including her flight training.
“Creativity requires the courage to let go of the certainty,” Cox said. “I learned early on that I wasn’t going to do things the same way, so I had to channel creativity, ingenuity, and know the importance of having the desire to do it.”
In pursuit of her pilot’s license, Ms. Cox – who flies privately – needed to obtain her driver’s license first. Considering the experience to be one of physical and emotional exhaustion, Cox drove a modified vehicle before her instructor saw that she drove better with an unmodified vehicle. After going through hoops, the pilot finally earned her license, garnering an unparalleled resilience in the process.
Speaking to an audience at the Tinker Club, Ms. Cox then told the story of her 11 years wearing prosthetic arms. Though “easier to blend in,” the prosthetics seemed to serve as more of a hindrance. “I wanted to be the person I was created to be, no one else.”
Describing the situation initially as fearful, the pilot explained her personal acronym for the word “fear” – False Evidence Appearing Real.
“We create our own fear. Completely. If we create it, we can destroy it,” she said. “To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, ‘Identify your greatest fear and walk directly at it.’”
Her incredible story of resilience has inspired and encouraged many, including 8-year-old Katelynn Parker, who was in attendance. Parker, who was born without one of her hands, came with her grandmother Regina Houze, a program manager for the F-100 engine program.
“Everyone always asks me why I only have one hand, but I just tell them I was born that way, nothing happened to me,” the Cox protégé said. Parker can draw well and jump rope, but she’s still working on tying her shoes.
“Her encounter with [Cox] showed her that she can really do anything she sets her mind to,” Houze said.
Cox professed that our greatest fears are not that we’re inadequate, but rather that we are powerful beyond measure.
“I wish for you to have that burning desire, endless persistence and unconquerable fearlessness,” she said. “And remember to think outside the shoe when things get tough.”