Not even her doctors could figure out why Jessica Cox was born without arms.
She grew up never really knowing what she was missing.
Cox used her legs like arms and her feet as hands. All the while, she shattered people’s conceptions of what a handicapped person could achieve.
And, last fall she reached the mother of all milestones when she became the first-ever woman pilot to fly with her feet.
Cox shrugged off the superlative last Thursday as she spoke to the Desert Kiwanis Club about her three-year quest to become a pilot.
The group, based at the Fountains at La Cholla, played an instrumental role in pushing her to fly.
In fact, club member Jack McIntyre “helped me learning how to land,” Cox said with a smile. “That’s actually the toughest part.”
Cox frequently speaks about her life to groups throughout the area, aiming to motivate audiences to look beyond obstacles when pursuing their goals.
Still, the thought of piloting an airplane put Cox’s own sunny attitude to the test, she recalled last week. “This is my greatest fear.”
The staff of Wright Flight, a Tucson-based non-profit that uses aviation to motivate youths to greater heights, approached her with a simple proposition: Soar the skies.
“My father told them, ‘She’d love to,’” Cox said.
The experience taught her a great deal about herself, she explained, and even more about achieving her goals.
Achievement might as well be Cox’s middle name, though she hardly sees it that way.
To her, driving a car or pursuing a black belt in Tae Kwon-Do (Cox is the only armless person to hold that distinction, by the way) are tasks anyone else might embrace as well.
Using her right foot to fish a piece of paper from her back pocket and her toes to unfold it and lift it to the podium, Cox ran down a list of maxims she picked up while learning to fly.
“First, make sure your radio works,” the University of Arizona graduate said to a round of chuckles.
It’s no joke, really.
Last year, on her first solo flight from the San Manuel Airport, Cox lost radio contact with her instructor. She made her obligatory passes across the sky as her nervous instructor paced the hangar.
The radio didn’t stop working, as it turned out. Cox hadn’t turned the volume up.
“Second, you must keep your eye on a point on the horizon,” she told the Kiwanis Club. “You have to be very specific when you set a goal. You have to know who you are and where you want to go.”
Throughout her life, Cox never let her lack of arms deter her from reaching her goals. Mark Hollinger, the vice president of Wright Flight, is fond of a story about Cox’s attempt to get her driver’s license.
She had to convince the instructor she needed no special accommodations to drive. Cox could simply use her feet to do all the work.
The instructor took her at her word, Hollinger said last week, and, seeing that Cox could perform all the requisite tasks associated with driving, he passed her with flying colors.
A couple of days later, however, Cox had her license suspended. Other officials at the Motor Vehicles Department “couldn’t believe the instructor,” Hollinger said with a chuckle.
These days, driving a car must seem so blasé for Cox.
Soaring through the skies in a Ercoupe — maneuvering the controls with toes while scanning the horizon — seems more suited to her trailblazing style.