'I never despaired - I just learned to do things differently': The one-armed pilot who overcame the odds

·5-min read

Steven Robinson went on a blind date recently. The perfect gent, he listened intently as his date introduced herself and then he began to tell her about his own life. After a few moments, she started to frown.

‘There’s no need for you to be a bulls******’, she scoffed.

Steven, 57, from Leeds was a little taken aback. "I was only telling her the truth," he says. 

"I always struggle when people ask me ‘What do you do?’. I said I was an author and speaker, that I’m a pilot and I compete in dressage competitions. 

"I told her how I collect motorbikes and restore old jukeboxes and one armed bandits."

It was perhaps this last nugget that made Steven’s date think he was stretching the truth. Because although his achievements are remarkable – even earning him a British Empire Medal in the 2017 New Year’s Honours List - they are even more extraordinary when you consider that Steven only has one arm.

Steven doesn't let have one arm stop him living his dreams (Supplied, Steve Robinson)
Steven doesn't let having one arm stop him living his dreams (Supplied, Steve Robinson)

"I lost my right arm in a motorbike accident when I was only 18," he explains. "My lungs were damaged, I lost a lot of blood and the operation to save me took nine hours. 

"I ‘died’ three times and was in a coma for weeks afterwards.

"But the experience gave me so much confidence to do things in life that I wouldn’t have done before. I never woke up and looked at my missing arm and despaired. That’s not in my nature. 

"Instead, I thought: ‘This is never going to stop me. If something can’t be done with one arm, I’ll have to find a way to do it differently.’"

No one could argue otherwise. A keen engineer, he set up a business after his accident restoring jukeboxes and one-armed bandits – "I realise people think I’m taking the mick when I tell them that," he smiles – and went to Leeds Metropolitan University at the age of 35 to study computer science. 

Leaving with a first class honours degree, he created another successful digital jukebox business but sadly, this venture ended up in the courts, when another business tried to copy his ideas. 

Steven graduated in Computer Science
Steven graduated in Computer Science

Steven accepted an out-of-court settlement but became depressed.

"I’d lost £6.2m sales and was suicidal but I thought to myself, it’s time for ‘kill or cure’", he says. 

"I’d always been terrified of flying, but was awarded a flying scholarship by FSDP (Flying Scholarship for Disabled People) and after that approached a local airfield and asked for lessons to continue my flight training. I had nothing to lose.

Read more: Woman with glass arm dresses as Cinderella to show children 'difference could be beautiful'

"They told me it was impossible to fly with one arm because you have to hold the stick and the throttle with both hands at the same time. Even if they gave me lessons, they’d never ‘pass’ me to be a pilot. 

"But I’ve learned over the years that you can’t listen to other people when they say you can’t do something. You simply have to adapt."

Which is exactly what he did. Using his engineering skills, Steven created a telescopic prosthetic arm and returned to the flying school, determined to become a qualified pilot.

"They were shocked but I started having lessons and every hurdle and obstacle they put in front of me, I managed to overcome it. 

Steven gets his wings
Steven gets his wings

"They told me I couldn’t operate the flaps of the plane and hold the control stick at the same time, because the stick to control the aircraft was too slippy and I wouldn’t be able to even hold it with my knees - so my solution was simply to tape sandpaper around the stick so I could grip it with my knees.

"It’s so simple. When they said I couldn’t close the door of the plane because I needed to hold onto it while locking with my missing hand, I simply used planes with sliding canopies. You can overcome anything if you put your mind to it."

Steven made his own prosthetic arm so he could fly
Steven made his own prosthetic arm so he could fly

After three years of lessons, Steven qualified as a pilot in 2015 and now regularly enjoys taking trips up and down the UK. He pushed himself even further in 2019 and trained in aerial acrobatics for Davina McCall’s TV show ‘This Time Next Year’.

"I was absolutely terrified and didn’t think I’d be able to do it, but I think my near-death experience when I was 18 helped push me on," he says. 

"When I walked to the plane that day I thought: 'Am I ready to meet my maker if this all goes wrong?’ and I realised I was perfectly at peace with that."

Thankfully, Steven completed the challenge with flying colours and has now written his autobiography, charting his incredible life. But what’s next?

"I’m very spontaneous and haven’t planned this life at all," he admits. "I sometimes think someone else might have planned this life for me! 

"But every day I know that whenever an opportunity comes up to challenge me or to help someone else, I have to grab it with both hands – metaphorically of course."

An award for being inspirational!
An award for being inspirational!

Buy Steven's book: No Arm in Trying by Steven Robinson (£12.99, Chronos Publishing)

life edit
life edit
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