Flying without limits

Paraplegic pilot proves there are no limits except the ones you put on yourself
Published: Sep. 15, 2021 at 12:44 PM PDT
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - For Justin Meaders, flying has been in his blood right from the start.

“My dad had an airplane when I was young, and went for a ride in it when I was about five for the first time and that was it,” he said. “I knew I wanted to fly airplanes.”

He has a competitive streak and says there are two things he cares most about in this world- athletics and airplanes. So it’s no surprise he is one of the top pilots competing in the Formula 1 group in this year’s STHIL National Championship Air Races. He has been competing in the races since 2016. In 2018, he came in first in the Gold Class. In 2019, he came in second.

Meaders says he is going for that top spot again, now that the races have returned.

“I always want to be just a normal pilot that’s out there that I need to prove myself every flight just like everybody else does.”

But Meaders is not your average pilot. In fact, he’s the only one of his kind in the the sport.

“In the racing world I’m the only paraplegic pilot,” he said.

A motorcycle crash when he was 22 left Meaders paralyzed from the waist down. After spending his whole life chasing the next competition, he was suddenly faced with a new reality.

“I knew what I was doing was dangerous, racing motorcycles is dangerous, so I knew that something could happen,” he said. “I really always thought it would be an extreme of broken bones or death. I didn’t really ever think about any of the middle area.”

The crash may have taken the use of his legs, but it didn’t take his drive.

“The doctor came in and told me that I wasn’t going to be able to walk, and all that stuff, and I’m like okay well, give me a wheelchair because I’ve got things to do.”

Meaders began training in human-powered sports, competing in triathlons and even participating on the U.S. paratriathalon team for several years. But there was one thing he thought was gone

“I always wanted to get back to flying but I didn’t even know it was possible.”

Until he met another man who had been in a wheelchair for three decades and spent that entire time flying. Meaders then started his adaptive flying training, using hand controls instead of foot pedals. He even built his own plane he now flies in the races, and named it ‘Limitless’.

And taking flight again gave him a sense of freedom he first felt at 5-years-old flying with his dad.

“As soon as the wheels lift off the ground, you’re completely free of earthly things,” he said. “Once you’re in airplane... the airplane has no idea that you’re a paraplegic pilot. It doesn’t care. So you’re just free to go fly and do whatever you want to do and go wherever you want to go.”

Meaders is proving there’s no limits for those with the will to try and that is the message he hopes to share with others, especially kids.

 “Able-bodied kids, disabled kids, whatever, they need to know that they don’t really have limits unless they impose them on themselves. That’s part of the name of the airplane ‘Limitless’. I want them to know if they can like go do whatever they want.”

And taking on new challenges is just another way Meaders continues to live his life.

“Every day I just want to continue moving forward and making progress and whatever progress it is, no matter how tiny it is, gotta always be moving forward.”

You can watch Meaders compete in the Reno Air Races Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

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