Ben Stam sits by his display at the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley. Stam

Sky’s the limit

Being confined to a wheelchair doesn't mean you can't soar among the clouds, says Canada's first paraplegic pilot, Ben Stam

It’s not every day that you can take a personal tour of a museum exhibit conducted by the subject of the display.

But visitors to the Canadian Museum of Flight in Langley can.

Ben Stam, a volunteer with the museum, is Canada’s first paraplegic pilot, and he is more than happy to show off the display the museum has created in his honour.

Though the text and photos pasted onto the small green board set up at the front of the hangar paint a clear picture of Stam’s life, it can’t express the feeling he had when he first learned to fly, or his deep determination to get his pilot licence — details he will proudly fill in for visitors as he points to each aged photo of himself or describes the archived CBC coverage playing on a flat screen TV above.

Sitting in an electric-powered wheelchair, the 72-year-old Langley resident recalls moments of great satisfaction while flying, reminding him of all he has accomplished in his life.

Despite being wheelchair-bound since the age of 17, he made a personal choice to live his life to the fullest and enjoy every moment.

“The myth about handicapped people is that there is not too much they can do. I look at it in a completely different way. I don’t dwell on the things I can’t do but what I can do,” Stam said.

“I’ve always come to the conclusion that if the attitude and your outlook towards life is positive, then there’s not too much that you can’t do.”

Born in Holland in 1940, Stam moved to Canada with his family in 1951. They first arrived in Alberta and shortly after headed west and settled in New Westminster.

On April 4, 1958, Stam and his girlfriend, Ria, were hiking at Bridal Falls in Chilliwack with a group of friends. Suddenly the earth began to crumble underneath him and he fell a short distance, landing on a rock. An excruciating pain in his back led him to believe he had broken it. By the time emergency crews arrived, two hours later, there was nothing they could do. Stam’s spine had been permanently damaged; he was a paraplegic.

He spent four months on a Foster frame in hospital and then graduated to a regular bed and finally into a wheelchair. He went from being a strong, 170-pound teenager to a mere 95 pounds.

These were tough times for Stam, who had to reorganize his life and adjust to life in the confines of a wheelchair. And yet, he always managed to keep a positive attitude — an outlook on life he says he was born with.

“Mental attitude I think has a lot to do with it. If you don’t have the proper mental attitude you’re not going to be healthy. The rest has a lot to do with your whole system. We’ve only been given one life and we have to make the best of it,” he said.  “Sometimes you may not feel all that great physically, you may be sore, but you need to get out there. Be happy. That in itself makes others happy.

“It’s a God-given gift I think, when you look at it from that point of view.”

Before he had finished his rehabilitation in hospital, Stam had already lined up a job working for Lenkurt Electric in an assembly line, and soon worked his way up to foreman. He was the only man in the division— the entire line was made up of women and girls.

“[The women] could tell some pretty nasty jokes, and I blush really easily,” Stam recalls.

“So they would wait till about 8:15 or 8:30 a.m. and the jokes would come. And for the rest of the day I’d be like a red beet,” he laughed.

In 1962 Stam married his girlfriend Ria who remained by his side after the accident, and together they had two children. He taught himself many skills, including servicing vehicles with mobile hydraulics and later opened two successful businesses with his brothers.

But one of his greatest achievements was learning to fly.

In the 1960s, Canadian legislation prevented those with disabilities from becoming pilots. Stam had unsuccessfully applied to the Department of Transport for a student licence, and began to look for other options.

He learned that in the United States, the obstacle did not exist. He received a number of letters of recommendation from the States, submitted them to the Department of Transport, and in November, 1969 was finally given the go-ahead from Ottawa for pilot training.

By March, Stam was flying high above Langley in a Piper Cherokee with Skyway Air Services school, which offered him a 50 per cent discount on classes.

There were no physical or mechanical alterations needed in a plane for Stam to fly. Using a portable hand control developed by paraplegic pilot William Blackwood in California, he could have a plane ready to fly in about five minutes.

In order to raise enough money to pay for lessons and his test, Stam’s fellow employees at Lenkurt organized the Miniature Miles for Millions Walk. Following the slogan “I’ll get high with a little help from my friends,” co-workers pushed Stam up Burnaby Mountain and raised $800. With this he was able to pay for his lessons, buy a lightweight wheelchair he could pull in and out of an airplane by himself and a hand-rudder control to allow him to fly the plane.

Stam felt pressure not only to get the license for himself, but also to set the precedent for future pilots with disabilities. Had he failed the test, he would also have failed it for future generations.

“The challenging thing was that you had to train solid enough to actually get a license. That was the big thing, because everything depended on that test flight with the Department of Transport. If I failed that one, then it would be out for me but it would be out for everyone else as well,” he said.

“I had a lot to prove to the other people, because you open it up for anyone else who is handicapped.”

On July 20, 1970 he finally received his private pilot licence. This required the government to completely rewrite the physical standards in air regulation.

“It’s quite an incredible feeling, flying alone in the air,” Stam said. “As you get up off the ground you start looking around and all of a sudden you go ‘oh, that seat is empty’ and then it’s all up to you.”

Stam received great support from within his flying fraternity, but there were still many others who were skeptical that he was able to fly. One of his worst experiences, he recalls, was at an airport in Winnipeg.

“The customs officer was inside the airplane and he said to me ‘you can’t fly, you’re in a wheelchair.’ I said ‘oh, how do you think this airplane got here?’ He wouldn’t believe it. He had a supervisor with him and I said ‘get this guy out of here. If you want to inspect the airplane, do so the way you should. And don’t question my license, it’s right there. Don’t question my ability to fly, unless you want to go up with me.’ Oh they questioned everything. It was just incredible. Just utter stupidity,” Stam said.

Luckily, these incidents were a rare occurrence. Stam says he can already see the changes in attitudes since he first entered the aviation world. He knows of three students with physical handicaps who have gone through the pilot program in Langley.

“I really encourage the fact that this really is possible for handicapped people,” Stam said. “It’s amazing what people don’t know they can accomplish until they really sit down and think about it.”

After being grounded from flying in the 1980s due to health concerns, Stam had accomplished more than a decade of flying for companies such as BC Hydro, his own businesses and for pleasure.

The one thing Stam never managed to do was get his wife to fly with him. She was terrified of flying, especially in small airplanes.

“I had her up once during all this time. My biggest ambition was to get her up in an airplane on a regular basis, but she wouldn’t do it. So the kids came, we dropped mom off back at the airport, and she sat the wheelchair up against the hangar reading a book. We were gone for an hour and a half and she was still reading the book when we got back,” he remembered with a chuckle.

Now retired, Stam flies as a co-pilot with his nephew, soaring over some of his favourite spots in Penticton, Kamloops and Kelowna.

But much of his time is spent helping out at the Canadian Museum of Flight, where he has been a volunteer for the past two years.

“I can’t sit around at home. That won’t do,” he said. “You need to keep active— that’s one of my philosophies. I’ve spent so much time in aviation, this is about as close as I can get to it, and I love giving back to the community, especially to the area that’s been so good to me.”

Visitors to the museum can find Stam behind the front counter tending to the gift shop or guiding people around the hanger, explaining all of the model planes and aviation artifacts.

“I get quite a few people who come up to me after seeing my display and look at my name tag and say ‘hmm, is that you?’ So then I have to go with them and explain a few more things,” he said with a laugh.

Stam believes that everything he has managed to achieve over the years has come from keeping a positive state of mind.

“I always had the attitude that the world, or anybody, did not owe me a living because I have a handicap,” he said. “You have to go out and make whatever you can out of life and do the best that you can. And a lot of it is a mental attitude that you have to have. If you don’t have the mental attitude you’re not going to get anywhere. No one owes you a living.

“It’s important to let people know of the importance for having a good life. If there’s anything that I could pass along, that would be my main goal.”