As the sun begins to rise over the distant mountains at the San Manuel Ray Blair Airport, Jessica Cox stands next to a sky-blue single-engine plane. At this small airport northeast of Tucson, Cox is the only pilot preparing for a flight this morning.
She removes the chains that hold the 1946 Ercoupe 415-C in place, unscrews the fuel cap to assess the gas level and begins checking the plane over. These are ordinary preparations for a flight, but Cox has a unique way of doing them.
She performs all tasks with her feet.
Born without arms, Cox, 26, has done far more with her life than most people her age: She holds a bachelor's degree from the UA, has two black belts in tae kwon do, drives a car without modifications, has her scuba certification, is a motivational speaker and holds a sport pilot's license.
Finding the right plane to fly took some effort. After a 2 1/2-year search around the country, Cox found the Ercoupe close to her northwest Tucson home.
"It's the only airplane that does not have rudder pedals. Most planes require that you use all four limbs to control the airplane. This plane only requires two," explains Cox.
As we're talking, Cox's flight instructor, Parrish Traweek, arrives to accompany her on a quick test flight. They take off with Cox expertly navigating the plane up into the sky. She later lands the plane easily.
Traweek tells me that Cox is ready to go and helps me board the plane. We take a 20-minute, smooth, peaceful flight around the airport. As I watch Cox operate the brake, throttle and yoke with her feet, I have the realization that maybe I, too, could someday fly a plane. I never thought I could do so before. Her influence is invigorating.
"I'm here to empower people to believe that the only limitations are the ones we create. ... When someone says, 'I can't,' that's a personal choice. Once you put yourself in a box, then it's all downhill from there."
Cox sees herself as similar to everyone else, and as having the same choices. "Everyone is incredible in (his or her) own way and can achieve anything they want to achieve if they have that determination. ... I am just like everyone else in that sense."
Cox does the same things as four-limbed people; she just uses her feet instead. Writing, typing, talking on the phone, eating and pumping gas are all done with a sense of normalcy. She does not see herself as disabled and prefers to use the term "differently abled" instead.
Her positive attitude partly stems from her upbringing. Her independent mother came to the United States alone at 23 from the Philippines to work as a nurse. Her father never shed a tear over Cox's two limbs. "I grew up with confidence. (My father) saw me just as capable as anyone else, as a whole person."
Being whole and comfortable with herself is something that permeates Cox's demeanor. Her inner peace is palpable, and shaped by her relationship with God. "My faith is a huge component of who I am and why I feel like I have this sense of joy in things that I do."
Faith in oneself is also a part of Cox's message. "I want to tell people to stand up for themselves and celebrate their differences, to be proud of who they are."
Cox shares her personal story as an international motivational speaker. She's gotten worldwide press as the first U.S. pilot certified to fly a nonmodified plane with her feet and without using prosthetics. She appeared on Inside Edition and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She's also profiled in the recently published Ripley's Believe It or Not.
With all the publicity, Cox says she feels almost honored that living her normal life somehow inspires other people. As opportunities come her way, she takes them. "Ever since I was little, I just wanted to be a part of everything."
This includes plans to earn her flight-instructor license, write a book and have a family. Next up is learning how to surf while visiting Maui in October. And she's not afraid: "Fear is not necessarily anything that would stand in my way."
With an attitude like that, we just may see her on the cover of a surfing magazine, riding the waves with confidence and a smile. But for Cox, it would be just another normal thing to do.
For more information on Jessica Cox, visit rightfooted.com.
To see Irene Messina's video footage of her ride-along, visit Tucson Weekly TV's YouTube page.