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Soaring Above Limitations: United Airlines Pilot Defines What’s Possible

May 2, 2023 |

By Jewel Connelly, Communications Specialist

Walking through the terminal in uniform, First Officer Eric Gaffney is living out a dream at one point he questioned would even be possible. Yet every week his presence in airports around the world tells a different story–one of courage, determination, and purpose. 

Born without a right hand, learning to navigate the world with a limb difference has been part of Eric’s journey from the start. Fortunately, he grew up in a supportive environment, yet whispers of self-doubt almost stopped Eric from pursuing his true passion: flying. His love of aviation began as a child when he was introduced to airplanes by his father, who worked as a mechanic for American Airlines.  

Reaching a crossroads in college, Eric had to decide if he would fight to make his dream a reality or settle for his second choice in the medical field. “Flying an airplane seemed like such a two-handed job,” Eric said, reflecting. “But during my freshman year at the University of Oklahoma I would see the airplanes fly over from the flight school and I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to see what I can do. My passion is there so I really need to give myself a chance. I can’t just rule it out.’” Meeting with the chief flight instructor, Eric received the confirmation and encouragement he needed to go all in with the conclusion, “Eric, it won’t be easy, but I do think it’s possible.” From that day forward, his mentality shifted and instead of focusing on the barriers he began to imagine the possibilities. “I thought, if he thinks it’s possible, then I do too, and I’m going to make it happen. And I never let anyone tell me no from that point on.” 

Fast forward to today, Eric has enjoyed a successful career as a commercial pilot for 13 years, the last seven with United Airlines. Switching from the Boeing 737 to the 767 this year, Eric flies domestic and international routes from his home base in Houston. As expected, he has encountered some unique challenges, but overall the industry met him with an open mind and gave him a fair chance to demonstrate his abilities.  

Choosing not to use a prosthesis while flying, Eric has developed his own modification to manipulate the yoke (steering wheel) so he maintains constant pressure while landing. “I use the trim motor and I roll the trim nose-heavy, which causes the yoke to move forward,” Eric explained. “I put my arm behind the yoke, and it’s constantly being pushed against my arm. That allows me to have constant control over it without having to move my arm from the front to the back of the yoke.”  

Proving to others (and himself) that there is often more than one way to do something, Eric is not only enlightening those who see him but sharing his message through a special cartoon airplane. 

Taking an impromptu month off at the start of COVID-19, Eric was presented with the perfect opportunity to write a book he had on his mind. Inspired by his own kids, he decided to put his story into a children’s book and Airick Flies High was born. The story follows Airick the airplane, who has one wing shorter than the other, mirroring the personal challenges Eric had to overcome in his life and career.  

Writing the book has created even greater opportunities for him to talk about limb differences, particularly with children he meets at schools and speaking events. “It’s been a great tool,” Eric shared. “I feel like this book has really opened up the eyes of a lot of people to say, ‘Yeah, I’m different, but I’m able to do it.’ Every kid who sits in front of me is different in one way or another. You might not have a limb difference, but we all have differences.”  

Eric is a proponent of the belief that representation matters, and he is proud to contribute another character that kids with limb difference can relate to. “It’s also important to teach those who are able-bodied that it’s OK to have a limb difference,” Eric added. 

One of the highlights of Eric’s workday is inviting kids (and adults too) for a cockpit tour before their flight departs. Of all the children he’s met with limb differences, a young girl with Poland syndrome stands out. Hailey Dawson has a 3D-printed hand, and she traveled the country to throw out the first pitch at every Major League Baseball stadium with the help of United Airlines–the journey to 30. “I flew her home from the World Series, and another time we flew in a simulator together at the flight training center,” Eric said. “I also got to go to the final pitch at the Los Angeles Angels stadium when she completed her journey and met former left-handed pitcher Jim Abbott.”  

It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually Eric has changed his perspective to be comfortable and confident in his own skin. “I used to love what we call jacket season when we wore long jackets and people wouldn’t notice my limb as easily,” Eric admitted. “Nowadays I’ve tailored my jacket so it fits my arm better because I’m proud of it.” Making a powerful statement without saying a word, his actions empower others to come out of hiding and fully embrace their differences. With a little creativity and a tenacious spirit, the realm of possibilities remains wide open. 

Follow Eric on Instagram (@sureflywriting), and if you’d like to purchase a copy of his children’s book, it is available on Amazon