Landing in Maryland ended an almost cross-country journey for the 22-year-old Arizona native piloting the Cessna on an airplane five day adventure from her home state to New Mexico, across the Midwest, with a final stop in Kentucky.
“Court! Good job Kaiya!” yelled about a dozen supporters, including students carrying signs that read “Go, Kaiya, Go” in English and braille symbols.
On her journey, she had a co-pilot who communicated with her during flights and gave her important information in real time.
A stormy forecast got her a day ahead of schedule for a trip to the DC area to commemorate World Sight Day, which the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness says should be promoted as “International Day of Awareness” every October .
The trip was sponsored by the Foundation for Blind Children, a 70-year-old Arizona organization that teaches about 2,000 students of all ages how to navigate life without full sight, said CEO Marc Ashton. And in Armstrong’s case, they provided a way to learn to fly without full sight.
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The organization sponsors “challenge events” for students, including hiking Kilimanjaro, swimming to Alcatraz Island and braving rapids on the Colorado River. The group nervously followed Armstrong’s progress via a GPS app as they left Phoenix, being diverted from Colorado to Las Vegas due to poor weather, and continuing east to land and take off.
“It’s really about giving our kids that moment of glory so they have the rest of their lives to sow confidence,” Ashton said.
This flight was meant to inspire to show that if a blind woman could fly across the country, other blind or partially sighted people can aspire to be what they choose in life, Ashton said. The organization brought several teenagers to cheer the landing and introduce them to Washington, DC, he said.
“It was just an amazing event that I never thought was possible,” said Marilin Huinac, a 16-year-old college student. “She does this for us. We can do anything. As she said, “There are no limits.” ”
When she left her home in Goodyear, Arizona, at age 14 for a mile-long bike ride, Armstrong’s eyesight began to fail. Within minutes the world went blurry and she quickly returned home to tell her mother, Kamla Armstrong, who thought she was simply having an allergic reaction to something.
But soon her mother looked her in the eye and realized something was deeply wrong.
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“Your student was bloated,” Kamla Armstrong said in an interview.
She had to endure three surgeries that promised improvement but made her vision even blurrier, her parents said. It was years before doctors said an autoimmune disease led to the condition.
Over several years, Armstrong’s eyesight deteriorated and she navigated her high school years without medical or academic assistance, falling off curbs and crashing into things, her parents recalled. Last year the family bought a cane and turned to YouTube videos to learn how to use it, her father Mark Armstrong said.
She grew closer to her family, particularly her mother, who often served as her eye but insisted that her daughter take part in family outings to play putt-putt golf or ice skate. Kamla Armstrong challenged her eldest child to “believe in the Lord,” she said.
Kaiya Armstrong said she struggled through high school but her life took a turn when she was 19 and discovered the Foundation for Blind Children. The foundation helped her begin a path that led to learning braille and attending community college, where she now studies criminology and plans to go to law school, she said.
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In March, the organization offered her the opportunity to learn to fly. Chosen from a competitive group of students, she jumped at the opportunity despite having never flown and only traveled to neighboring California and Nevada. She had previously believed that there were some things she would never be able to do, most notably: drive and fly.
The Foundation enrolled her in months of intensive flight instruction. She trained with Leopard Aviation, who paired her with instructor Tyler Sinclair, who helped her learn all the intricacies of the cockpit and co-piloted her epic journey.
The skies above are “peaceful,” Armstrong said. Her limited vision is best described as “tunnel vision,” she explained.
This vision provided Armstrong with some awe-inspiring glimpses of the landscape below as she saw a palette of green forests and blue lakes, very different from the beige, sandy bottom she normally observed in Arizona.
Even the start of her journey offered a view that mimicked chocolate chip cookies, a sea of brown mottled with dark roofs and rocks below, she recalled.
“It’s just so interesting what you can see when you can’t see,” she said.
Those memories will stay with her deeply, she said, but what made more impact were her interactions with groups of supporters during the trip, including other blind people and airport crews. Armstrong said she hopes the journey lingers on her mind, like the colors on hers.
“This is such a big moment, not just for me and my family, but for the entire visually impaired community,” Armstrong said. “I want everyone to remember that.”