BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER
Deaf Palo Alto pilot takes off for each of the 48 continental states
Friday, September 3, 1999
(09-03) 04:00 PDT PALO ALTO -- As the days wound down to his launch date, Mark Stern of Palo Alto was excited but nervous. So many things can happen, he said, displaying his customary realism.
But as he prepared to pilot his single-engine plane through all lower 48 states, Stern, 35, also neared fulfillment of one of his lifelong dreams. Of the 600,000 licensed pilots in the United States, about 200 -- including Stern -- are deaf.
The naysayers told him he couldn't be a pilot. When he underwent a physical -- a requirement for a pilot's license -- the aviation medical examiner told Stern, ``No way,'' because he was deaf. Stern, however, was undeterred and appealed to the Federal Aviation Administration.
A waiver was granted, and Stern left on his cross-country journey yesterday. The boy who once looked so admiringly at planes during summer vacations at Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers made the first successful powered flight in 1903, finally is achieving his dream.
Now a five-year flying veteran with more than 500 hours of flight time, Stern makes it a point to fly at least once a week. The care he puts into his passion is evident.
He calls his hangar at San Martin Airport his ``home away from home.'' It has a disco ball on the ceiling, a living room and a kitchen, and he plans to add a sleeping area to it. Stern sometimes spends an entire day or night there.
Readying his plane, a Piper Archer nicknamed Kitty Hawk with 180 horsepower, Stern shows the same attention to detail, thoroughly checking everything, including his passengers. He's no less meticulous in the air.
To compensate for his deafness, Stern is forced to rely on his sight. That is not unusual, since the majority of general aviation flights are conducted under Visual Flight Rules. They involve navigation and control of the aircraft, largely by sight, under suitable weather conditions day or night. Such a flight also requires a minimum of three miles' visibility while flying 500 feet below or 1,000 feet above any clouds.
Stern is not permitted to fly at an airport where an Air Traffic Control facility is in operation. He can get around this stipulation by having another pilot on board to handle the radios or by making advance arrangements with the tower to arrive or depart without using the radio.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Stern, a manager of Web site navigation architecture at Netscape, described the emergency procedures to his passengers before boarding the plane. Once inside, he enlisted their help in looking for aircraft and constantly turned his head to make sure nothing would sneak up on him. There should be no talking during the take-off and landing, Stern said. He doesn't want any distractions.
Stern became deaf as a result of contracting spinal meningitis when he was 1 year old. He reads lips and speaks, and because his speech is good, he can transmit his whereabouts on a local traffic frequency to alert other pilots operating in the area. He prefaces his comments by saying, ``Transmit only,'' and has a device that lights up when someone is broadcasting over the frequency set in the radio. That allows him to communicate his positions without ``stepping on'' someone as they talk.
Asked if he was nervous about other planes, he responded, ``Oh yes. If I wasn't, I wouldn't be flying. I'm a little paranoid. It keeps me alive.''
Michael Montalvo, 35, a pilot for COMAIR airlines, was Stern's flight instructor. He recalled meeting Stern for the first time at the Stanford Flying Club.
``Mark's enthusiasm was very apparent in his face,'' he said. ``As we spoke longer, I could see that Mark was an intelligent person who was willing to challenge the obstacles we were about to embark on. I think he knew more about the obstacles before us than I did.''
Montalvo admitted that he had his doubts about Stern communicating in an airplane. Another worry was the Bay Area's busy air traffic. To accommodate these challenges, Montalvo allowed for more lesson time and arranged for lessons when air traffic was low. As Stern gained experience, Montalvo exposed him to more congested traffic areas.
When it came time for the longer solo flights -- 50 nautical miles or more -- required for the license, the two men arranged for ``no-radio'' departures out of Palo Alto's airport.
Stern flew the plane to a distant airport, such as Willows in the northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley or King City in the Salinas Valley, and returned to South County Airport south of San Jose. At that airport, he met up with Montalvo. Montalvo then flew the airplane back to Palo Alto, while Stern followed in the car.
Montalvo has been an instructor for eight years, and four of his students stand out as exceptional. Stern is one of them -- not only because of what he achieved, but because he is an excellent pilot, Montalvo said.
``Even to this day, he e-mails me with questions,'' Montalvo said. ``A good pilot is one who is always learning -- and willing to learn from his and others' experiences.''
Every time Stern sees a plane, he stops to watch. It's almost as if he's in his own universe, entranced by the world above him. His idea of a perfect day is flying in his plane.
``I'm a little obsessed with planes,'' he said.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Stern obtained his bachelor of science degree from Stanford and his master's in computer science from Brown.
Asked about his interests, he jokingly replied, ``Flying, flying, flying,'' and then added reading, gourmet cooking and traveling.
Stern serves on the boards of the Jean Weingarten School for the Deaf in Redwood City and the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.
Stern also volunteers for Angel Flight, an organization of pilots who donate their time and aircraft transporting patients to medical centers for treatment.
Valorie Beer, 42, director of Learning and Development at E- Trade Group Inc., has flown with him on missions as a pilot and co- pilot.
``It never occurred to me to doubt Mark's ability based on his deafness,'' Beer said. ``I don't think about him as deaf. I think about him as Mark.''
In his years of flying, Stern has experienced only two alternator failures. He knows his plane so well that he can tell when something's not right.
Yesterday, Stern got to do the stuff of dreams. He chanced upon the idea for his trip after people kept asking him how many states he'd flown in. He thought about it, and then it occurred to him, ``Wouldn't it be neat to fly through all of them?''
The plan is to cover all 48 states in about six or seven weeks. Stern will stop in each state, sometimes just long enough to send himself a postcard. When he stays overnight, he hopes to camp out at the airport. He will also chronicle his trip on his Web site.
His trip is being underwritten by the Oberkotter Foundation to promote its film ``Dreams Spoken Here'' and other oral deaf education publicity efforts.
Stern embraced the challenge before him.
``If I knew I could do the trip, I wouldn't do it,'' he said. ``I'll find out.''
Pilot Mark Stern, who is deaf, plans to fly his single-engine plane through all lower 48 states. For information about his flight, see www.flight48.com .
The Oberkotter Foundation aims to raise public awareness about deafness. Information: www.oraldeafed.org.
Lisa Goldstein is a free-lance writer. Send comments to penfriday@ sfgate.com.
This article appeared on page PN - 1 of the SanFranciscoChronicle
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