He is confident, relaxed and all smiles. Driver Eric Gaffneywho was born with a limb difference, not only cuts a great figure, but is truly made for the job.
The 34-year-old United Airlines co-pilot, who flies the Boeing 737, is missing a hand, but he’s not lacking in determination and resilience. He firmly believes that people are born to win, provided they are prepared to face the challenges of their lives head-on.
Gaffney’s story is an uplifting story of strength, perseverance and hard work.
Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, he now lives in The Woodlands, Texas, with his wife, Natalie, and two children: a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. When Gaffney found himself grounded during the pandemic, he wrote a children’s book, titled “Airick flies highaiming to show that difference is not necessarily an obstacle.
“I tell kids all the time that even in classrooms full of two-handed kids, we all have something that makes us different,” he said. “We are all different, and it is our differences that make us unique, member difference or not. And with hard work and dedication, we can accomplish anything.
A desire to prosper
Growing up with a limb difference was not easy for Gaffney. When he was born, his parents were rightly concerned about how he would fare in life, missing a hand.
“At the hospital, however,” he says, “a nurse told my mother that nothing would ever stand in my way. This bit of encouragement eased many of their worries at first. They knew from a young age that no matter what, I would find a way to do whatever I wanted to do.
The nurse was right.
Since childhood, Gaffney has been resourceful and determined, finding a way to do it all. One of his favorite examples is tying his shoes. When he was young, Gaffney’s parents gave him spiral shoelaces that tightened when pulled. But, quickly noticing that he was the only child who couldn’t tie his shoes, he was determined to learn.
“To do this, I would work on it with my mother at home, and then she would send me to school with them bound,” he recalled. “At recess I would untie my shoes and practice tying them over and over again until I figured it out.”
Things are the same today; if there is a task to be done, Gaffney works hard until he finds a way to accomplish it.
“I know what I’m capable of”
Gaffney’s father is a mechanic for American Airlines, and Gaffney’s love of airplanes started early. Thinking about college, it was all he could imagine doing, but the idea of physically flying an airplane with one hand seemed impossible.
He eventually went with his other love, medicine, pursuing his passion to become a doctor. But during his freshman year, he knew the path he had taken was the wrong one. He started researching and got in touch with the University of Oklahoma’s chief flight instructor, a man named Dave.
“Dave sat me on a plane and showed me around. He told me – and I agreed – that it wouldn’t be easy, but he thought it would be possible,” he recalls.
Fast forward through numerous medical tests and flight demonstrations, Gaffney has proven and demonstrated his ability to become the unrestricted airline pilot he is today. “I feed on the doubt that others may have because I know what I’m capable of,” he said.
The book: “Airick flies high”
With his children’s book, Gaffney sends a vital message to all children. Having experienced how difficult it can be for children to deal with their peers when they are not “like everyone else”, he spares no effort to motivate and guide his little readers to be more empathetic, understanding and confident.
The response to the book has been wonderful, says Gaffney, and giving kids with limb differences a cartoon character to relate to has been amazing.
“The smiles on their faces when they see they have a character and a pilot ‘like them’ are incredibly heartwarming,” he said.
One of Gaffney’s favorite quotes comes from a Jim Abbott documentary by author Cormac McCarthy: “Those who have endured misfortune will always be set apart, but it is that misfortune that is their gift and their strength. “
Above all, he thanks his friends and family for their unwavering support, doing all they can to help him, often in resourceful ways. Gaffney says he is “eternally grateful” to his parents for their unconditional support and the way they pushed him, allowing him to achieve his dreams.
“One thing I loved so much was the way my parents treated me – they wouldn’t treat me any differently,” he said. “I played baseball growing up and my dad used to play catch with me. At first it was a challenge to get the ball from the glove to my hand to throw the pitch and then get the glove back in time.
“My dad was throwing the ball back to me as soon as he caught the ball with the aim of teaching me to put the glove back on as soon as possible. It worked.”
Advising others to never give up, he says hard work and dedication can go a long way in this world.
“Declare that you can do something and you will find a way,” he said. “Adapt and overcome, and never let anyone tell you no.”
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