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Amputee pilot: Ex-CNN anchor O'Brien could return to flying 'in no time'

February 26, 2014 -- Updated 2007 GMT (0407 HKT)
Brian Thomas, 30, was able to return to the cockpit 18 months after losing his right hand and parts of both feet.
Brian Thomas, 30, was able to return to the cockpit 18 months after losing his right hand and parts of both feet.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Amputees can be certified to fly solo as pilots
  • Brian Thomas lost his feet and right hand and still flies once a week
  • Thomas said former CNN anchor Miles O'Brien could be back piloting "in no time"
  • O'Brien posted on his blog that his left arm was amputated after an accident

(CNN) -- Would he ever fly again, now that his feet and right hand were gone?

That was among the first things amateur pilot Brian Thomas wondered after he awoke from surgery in 2009. A blood disease similar to hemophilia forced doctors to make him a triple amputee, removing his right hand and the ends of his feet.

A blog post by amateur pilot and journalist Miles O'Brien revealed this week that the former CNN anchor was also the victim of a medical condition that required amputation. O'Brien lost his left arm, sending concern throughout the online news and aviation communities.

O'Brien, a correspondent for PBS "NewsHour," appeared on CNN for 17 years, mostly focusing on science, technology and aerospace coverage.

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Thomas, 30, has an idea of what O'Brien might be going through after his amputation.

"It'll take some time for him to adapt, but he'll be back in it in no time," Thomas said Wednesday from his workplace in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Former CNN anchor's arm amputated after accident

Thomas had idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura. The Mayo Clinic describes it as a "disorder that can lead to easy or excessive bruising and bleeding" resulting "from unusually low levels of platelets — the cells that help your blood clot."

He had been flying his father's tiny Cessna single-engine plane for about a decade when one day he fell into a coma and was rushed to a hospital. When he awoke, doctors told Thomas he would probably face amputations. Thus began a battle against the disorder and against depression, which he won thanks to encouragement from his family. Thomas then started his journey back to the cockpit.

First, Thomas had to get a health evaluation. The FAA requires all pilots to be medically fit before they can be certified to fly solo.

"They see if you're able to meet the regulations performance-wise, even though you have a physical deficiency," Thomas said.

He sent his medical records to be reviewed by an aviation medical examiner, who recommended that the FAA allow him to take a medical flight evaluation test.

Only 18 months after his amputations and rehabilitation, Thomas was finally sitting in the pilot's seat of a tiny rented airplane with an instructor, ready to show what he could still accomplish.

"I was a little nervous, because I was having trouble getting the airplane started," Thomas laughed. "It was giving me fits." Eventually, the engine revved to life, and they were airborne.

Thomas uses his prosthetic arm and hook to control the plane\'s engine and instruments.
Thomas uses his prosthetic arm and hook to control the plane's engine and instruments.

The instructor was mostly interested in judging Thomas' access to the plane's instruments and how well he could control the plane. Thomas practiced several takeoffs and landings and checked his braking.

After the test, the instructor handed Thomas his paperwork. "And I was a pilot again!" he recalled. "It was just a huge sigh of relief, because I wasn't sure what to expect."

He celebrated by, what else, taking a solo flight. The same day he passed his test, Thomas was soaring high above Nebraska after dark. "It was crystal clear," he said. "You could see a golden trail of headlights down the interstate."

"I can't believe I got here," he thought. "It made me feel so successful, like, 'Well what's my next challenge?' "

Thankfully, Thomas' remaining hand -- his left -- was the one he most relied on to fly before the surgery. He has always used his left hand to control his steering wheel, aka "the stick." Thomas uses his prosthetic arm and hook, which now substitute for his right hand, to control the plane's engine, or throttle.

"The hook doesn't do a whole lot. It just pushes and pulls on the throttle," Thomas said. "The left hand is where the magic is. That's where you need all the fine motor skills, is running the stick."

The left hand is where the magic is.
Brian Thomas, triple amputee pilot

Thomas said that for a pilot missing the "magic hand" -- the main steering hand -- "it would be considerably more challenging to get back into it. But it wouldn't be insurmountable. It just takes more practice, I would say."

As for the aircraft's pedals, which control the rudder, Thomas said he doesn't use any special gear. "It's harder for me than it used to be to feel where the rudder pedals are, because I don't have any toes. The whole front half of my feet are gone."

If it's really windy and gusty, "it makes it more of a big deal," he said. "The taxiing, takeoff and landing portion, that's really the most critical time to have your game on."

During his career covering aviation, O'Brien developed a reputation as a pilot and aircraft owner. He often used his plane to travel to story assignments and as a platform to explain aviation stories to a wider audience.

The aviation community is tight-knit, and Thomas is reaching out to O'Brien as he would for any fellow pilot. "I'd be more than happy to help him any way I can," he said.

The horizon looks bright for Thomas, who's been an aviation mechanic in Lincoln for about eight years and now flies about once a week.

He has co-written a book about his experience, "Modified Flight Plan." And soon he wants to fly across America to inspire other amputees.

"I'm still trying to figure out where to go," he said. But one idea is Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, to help some of the nation's troops who've lost limbs in combat. "That seems like it would be a pretty cool place to go."

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