How one disabled Hackney woman learned to fly from the comfort of her own home…

Malky Padwa next to aircraft as part of the VAE program. Pic: Aerobility

Imagine learning to fly a plane from the comfort of your own home on your computer. Wheelchair-bound Malky Padwa, from Hackney has done just that, realising a lifetime ambition despite a neurological condition that has led her to have electrodes implanted in her brain.

Padwa, who lives in Manor House, completed a five-hour flying scholarship with the charity Aerobility in 2023 , a project funded by the Government.  

It aims to teach disabled people who aspire to fly but may feel that their disability holds them back, whether the participants seek to further pursue qualifications in the aviation world, or not. It does this through a combination of flight school and virtual simulation, while also teaching them various life skills such as decision-making, problem-solving, and situational awareness.

Padwa, 34, has generalised dystonia, a condition that affects how the brain communicates with the muscles causing involuntary and spasmodic movements and which has left her wheelchair-bound.

Her condition has required several bouts of brain surgery, since she left school at 17, including her most recent one: “I have had ground-breaking surgery, having electrodes implants in my brain called Deep Brain Stimulators (DBS) for which I have undergone several brain operations over the years. My latest surgery is really unique as they have now inserted an additional set of electrodes, so I now have four electrodes implanted in two regions of my brain instead of the conventional set of two in one region.” 

This has also unfortunately meant that she has not been able to pursue a career.

Despite this, she says that she’s always wanted to fly and was determined to get that experience despite her disability. She said: “It has been one of my dreams and passions for years.” 

Padwa told Eastlondonlines that though she tried at Southend Airport Flying Club, and they were happy to give her a flight experience, and thus her first of the 8 actual flying hours she accumulated with an instructor in a real aircraft, they said that they were not able to give her lessons because she was disabled, and therefore she would never be able to get a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL).  

She then heard about Aerobility:  “I wanted more, so I applied for a scholarship and was lucky enough to get it. After completing the scholarship, I continued learning…in preparation for the nine exams needed towards getting a licence. Then I was offered to continue lessons with their free Virtual Aviation Experience (VAE).” 

Padwa accumulated the rest of her seven actual flying hours with an Aerobility instructor at Blackbushe Airport near Farnborough. The rest have been independent virtual flying hours of which she said: “[It] is fantastic, as not only does it give me realistic flying experience it also allowed me to “visit” different airports virtually all around the world, to experience both daytime and nighttime flying, different seasons as well as flying in different weather conditions, i.e. different cloud types which was really helpful…all from the confines of my hospital bed!

“Being admitted to hospital for brain surgery was not going to stop me, and I have been continuing my online flying lessons and improving my flying skills from my hospital bed.” 

Malky Padwa

The Virtual Aviation Experience (VAE) simulation from a hospital. Pic: Aerobility

Padwa also praised the Aerobility programme and the instructors. She said they ”went out of their way to facilitate my lessons ensuring no small detail is overlooked or corner cut in actual flying for every disabled person wanting to learn to fly no matter the complexity of their condition.”  

She said the VAE course works in the same way so that the simulated experience is similar to what the student would find in a real aircraft.  

Malky Padwa in an aircraft as part of the VAE programme. Pic: Aerobility

Laura Mayer, one of the VAE instructors told ELL: “The VAE project is the first proper virtual reality thing that we’ve been working on as a charity. The focus came from after Covid, when it highlighted the constraints lockdown had.

“Lockdown wasn’t unfamiliar for people with disabilities because they know that feeling of being constrained to home, so we wanted to do a project that got it out there.” 

Laura Mayer

She said although the VAE is not official training, it is a stepping stone for students who want to take further training or even obtain their first licence: “[the students] get a course completion certificate, which massively proves their willingness, their enthusiasm, because a lot of time and effort goes into [it], especially to get all the way through to the end…all of the skills that they’ve learnt from the VAE are super transferable to a real aeroplane…but VAE is their start.” 

Mayer also told ELL she finds her reward in overcoming the challenges that come with working with disabled people: “I think the challenge has also been my favourite moments, so I’ve sort of linked the two to bring it down to a level that is fun for [the students], so they can sort of understand it in their own pace. It’s really hard to sort of start to form a relationship, but once you do…they come alive. I won’t lie, it’s a challenge, but that’s where the reward comes from.” 

Padwa said the takeaway that she hopes others will glean from her story is that perseverance and determination to follow one’s ambitions pays off.

“If you have an ambition, you live it, don’t let disability get in your way…I have lost count of the amount of people who have seen my joystick and questioned it, it was a proud feeling to answer that I use it to practice my flying as I am working towards my PPL.” 

“Flying is addictive, you will not want to stop once you do take that first step and start.” 

Malky Padwa

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