Post date: 
Wednesday, 16 August 2017
Image shows the view from a plane, including the planes wing and a sunset in the distance

We've all had the experience of flying in an aeroplane but what about piloting one yourself? Community member Urmila Sharma-Valand talks about what it was like to fly a plane with sight loss. 

Imagine flying a plane up into the skies, feeling free like the birds and getting much closer to the clouds. Oh, that beautiful view of the earth! More importantly, defying gravity! 

It is, believe me, such an amazing experience, especially when you are blind.

There was a time when I used to rush around juggling my time between my much loved jobs, looking after my family as well as doing community work, and then suddenly one day there was a break. I banged my head, which resulted in a detached retina, which was followed by right pseudophakiachronic panuveitis, eventually complete loss of vision in my left eye and the diagnosis of rare eye disease called FEVR eye (familial exudative vitreoretinopathy). 

After losing my sight, the idea of never being able to drive a car really upset me, and this was why my family decided to compensate for this with a gift of a "Flying a Plane Experience". 

As I sat in the seat, my heartbeat was racing, my body was shaking, my stomach was churning, my eyes were watering but the feeling of happiness overtook everything.

Although it looked dark and shadowy, I was able to touch the buttons and the joystick. I felt the door and the glass window and it gave me a sudden shock of excitement. For a moment I paused breathing, "Is this really happening? Am I sitting inside an airplane?" I literally pinched myself to make sure I was not in a dream. Nope, it was all real! I had a lump in my throat because I never thought I'd be able to have such an achievement in this lifetime. My tears were hid behind sunglasses, thank goodness!

I was sat next to the pilot who gave me brief health and safety instructions and then directed me on how to use the control buttons. He also explained those circular dials and that joystick which I couldn't wait to hold.

We had to wait for the take-off signal and in the meantime, the pilot asked me how much I could see as well as how I lost my sight which I narrated very briefly.


As soon as we got permission, we took off into the sky, slowly and smoothly. I could feel the "lightness" of the aircraft and for a moment I could imagine how those birds sway so freely without any fear of falling.

The pilot then described the scene below, as well as around us in great detail and then the moment arrived when I was allowed to put my hand on the joystick! Oh my goodness, just a slight move to the right and the airplane moved very quickly and the same thing happened when I turned to the left, of course keeping it in neutral meant it flew in a straight line. It was a very touch-sensitive tool, the sort that my children used to play with on computer games when they were little.

We were up into that sky still talking about all sorts of things: jobs, family, the blind community and I don't know how, but we ended up discussing humanity. Well, at least our thoughts were on the same wavelength. During our conversation a silly thought occurred in my mind: is this where the souls travel to when people die? If so, the souls must be so lightweight then.

Very quickly, my mind got diverted when the pilot asked me if he could swerve the airplane and would I be frightened. On my agreement, he did just that and for a moment, I felt I was holding myself tight in my hands but it left me with a feeling of euphoria! You know when we search for places on Google Maps and we can zoom in to check the exact location in fine detail? I thought I was in that image but a very tiny dot! That's how the Earth looked from above. It wasn't scary at all. In fact, I would do it again and again.

And soon the time came to return to touch the land below. Now, that special time went by very quickly. Another lump was in my throat and, with tears of joy running down my cheeks I wished we could have stayed up longer. But hey, all good things in life seem to have a short life span!

Thank you to my family for such a wonderful gift of a lifetime.