Aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman once stated, “If I can create the minimum of my plans and desires, there shall be no regrets.”  We often get the 30,000 ft view of great achievements without taking a closer look at what it takes to get off the ground. The subject of this profile personifies the saying “attitude determines altitude” as she shares some of the fine details of her journey as she continues to thrust towards her dreams.

Leslie Irby, born and raised in East Point, Ga, is a true Georgia Peach! Leslie is a 2012 HBCU graduate of THE Fort Valley State University with a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice. While attending, Leslie had the distinct honor of pledging Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc., Spring 2011: The Infamous Eta Chapter. She currently is a member of her local chapter: East Point/College Park Alumnae. She was involved in a fatal car crash in 2013 where two people lost their lives, two were paralyzed and two walked away. She being one of the paralyzed individuals, decided that life was worth living, gave new meaning to “The Phoenix Rises.” She was given the opportunity to serve as the 2015 Ms. Wheelchair Georgia. From that experience, she was asked to be a featured Model alongside Top Runway Model Adriana Lima, and Madeline Stuart in NYFW. This achievement marked the beginning of many now FIRST for Leslie, as she is now known as the First African American Model with a disability to be featured in a major fashion show. That same year, she returned back to school and in 2017 received her Masters in Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling. She worked as a vocational counselor transitioning high school students with developmental disabilities and autism either into the workforce, training programs and even college. Leslie has always been an avid traveler and has traveled to more countries in her wheelchair than when she was able-bodied. Leslie knew she wanted to be a pilot at the age of 16 and never lost that dream. One day while flying to France, she had the epiphany to finish what she started over 12 years ago. She googled programs that had accessible aircraft and came across Able Flight. Able Flight’s mission is to give people with disabilities the opportunity to receive their sport pilot license. Leslie was selected among 7 others to train at Purdue University. After 7 long weeks of flying both Day and Night, with mid-day ground school, on June 28, 2019, Leslie accomplished her goal and became a licensed pilot. She is now historically known as the FIRST African American Female with a disABILITY to receive a pilot's license. She owes her love for aviation to the late Great Bessie Coleman and is proud to be a fellow aviatorix in her shadow of greatness.  

Kevin: Bessie Coleman is an aviator legend and you consider her your idol. What are some of her accomplishments that you’ve internalized and draw inspiration and parallels from? 

Leslie: Bessie Coleman is the first black female aviator to receive a pilot's license in the world. She is the epitome of true black girl magic. “The air is the only place free of prejudice”. I had that quote at the age of 16 on a Bessie Coleman posters given to me by my late father. At the time I did not understand it, but liked it because
here was a woman that was a pilot that looked like me. As I have grown, I have witnessed how cruel the world is and has been to black people and for one to be a female is even harder. I can relate to her adversities and even add my own personal challenges, as I have a disability, which is almost unheard of in the aviation realm. Now, the 29-year-old Leslie understands what 16-year-old Leslie did not when she saw Bessie’s words. When I am flying no one knows who I am, what I look like, what color I am, if I am able-bodied or have a disability, because the air is the only place truly free of prejudice. 

Kevin: She inspired you at a young age as you began flying at an early age of 16, what ignited this passion?

Leslie: Growing up living less than five miles away from Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. I saw the planes flying over the house, and watching them always fascinated me. I said to myself, I want to do that, so I did. 

Kevin: Being close to the airport helped to fuel your passion. Visualization is an important component of reaching our goals. How did you connect with Aerospace Career Education (ACE) via the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP)? How did this opportunity launch your dreams in aviation?

Leslie: At 16, my parents got me into a summer program through the OBAP, and through that program, my love for aviation grew. At 16, I took my first flight, in a CESSNA 172, and it was onwards and upwards from there. I was selected to be amongst an elite group of student pilots and got the opportunity to fly at Falcon field located in Peachtree City. There I flew a more streamlined aircraft, the Diamond 20. Even though 10 years have passed since my last time flying, the love was always there, and I had to find a new
way to accomplish the goal I had started many years ago. For me, it’s okay to alter plans in life, the important part is finishing. 

Kevin: You had a
life-altering experience. What were some of the thoughts you had immediately following this experience and how did you transition mentally throughout your recovery?

Leslie: My dad instilled in me his spirit. Life is going to keep going with or without you, and you either need to get on board or get off the train. With that being said, when I first got the news, it did not really hit me that I was in bad shape because I really was thinking about this new car I am about to get because my car was totaled. I really wanted a Jeep Wrangler at the time.  A little later, doctors told me that I sustained a spinal cord injury and even then, I really did not understand what a spinal cord injury was. I remember reflecting on all the social media
posts of people who have totaled their cars and thanking Jesus for another day, and thought that would be me soon. It did not register to me that I was actually hurt, so those were my first initial thoughts. After the doctors explained it to me, I was actually content because, on the other end, two people lost their lives, mine was just altered. So what do I have to complain about? I am blessed! And if this is the life God has blessed me with then I am grateful. I never looked at it as a burden because I know the day where I celebrate life, someone’s loved ones are mourning their loss. 

I never lost my identity despite what was happening to me. When I was told that I would be in a wheelchair, I asked them if they had a pink one, which they thought was hilarious because they never had that request. They told me they had some pink
therabands that I could wrap around the chair and that is exactly what I did, I always had a positive outlook and I just try to make the best out of life. 

Kevin: Those are great points about gratitude and positivity. The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center states that there are about 17,000 new SCI cases each year. What personal perspective would you like to share about SCIs?

Leslie: I would like for everyone to know that EVERY SPINAL CORD INJURY IS DIFFERENT. There are no two injuries the same. So when you look at someone you cannot compare someone you know or have seen who has a spinal cord injury to another. To make
judgments as far as thinking or saying someone is faking their injury, shows the ignorance that some have of SCIs.

We are in the age of technology and I understand that SCI may not be a highly researched topic, but the internet is a powerful tool. We have the opportunity to use it for basically anything including research, so we should. I believe in life, you never stop learning, you never stop growing, and you must keep evolving, such will

Kevin: Thanks for your advocacy and personal vantage point on this issue. You are an avid traveler. Describe what it feels like to blaze your own flight path in pursuit of a totally different travel experience?

Leslie: It feels awesome! Now it feels a lot different flying as a passenger since I have an actual license to fly. When I am flying on
aircraft, I talk out what the pilots are doing and what they are saying and responding to air traffic control because if I was in the cockpit that is what I would be doing. In my mind, I am playing back what is going on in the cockpit, which motivates me even more to continue my pursuit, and to get my next license and obtain other ratings. 

Kevin: In terms of your aviation,
the left seat gets a lot of the spotlight. However, aviators depend on support from numerous entities such as ground crews, air traffic control, etc. On the ground, how does your support team at home help you pursue your endeavors?

Leslie: At home my support system is amazing. Before I left for flight training, I had four months of ground school to complete which took me many hours to complete within a very short timespan. My friends and family encouraged me to finish and not give up along that process. They pushed me when I felt like I needed a break and in response told me I could break when I die. When I got to school, my support was still unwavering. So I was always encouraged along the way. I always kept in my head what I was doing and the impact it would have, so I was motivated to continue to fight for what I was doing and never give up. 

Kevin: You are a very successful individual by any measure. What would you like to share with others in overcoming personal turbulence and crosswinds in pursuit of excellence?

You have to lose who you once were to become who you are destined to be. If you are in your last semester in college and realize you want to major in something different, then do it. If you feel yourself at 85 wanting to start a business, then do it.  Life is going to happen regardless, whether you want
it to or not, so it is your choice to either live your life or let your life live you. 

Kevin: What’s next for you Leslie? 

Leslie: I am currently in the process of wanting to complete my private pilot license. I am at a stall due to the unsuccess of finding hand controls to fit a
or piper aircraft. There have been manufactures in the past who have made these controls, but production was too slow and they optioned to discontinue the line. Therefore, finding a pair of hand controls today is like finding a unicorn. This will be my next venture and I will not stop until I have a pair and can get back in my left seat where I belong. My marathon continues…. 


"You have to lose who you once were to become who you are destined to be."

Soaring to New Heights

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