He is confident, relaxed, and all smiles. Pilot Eric Gaffney, who was born with a limb difference, not only cuts a handsome figure but is truly made for the job.
The 34-year-old first officer at United Airlines, who flies the Boeing 737, is missing a hand—but he is not short on determination and resilience. He firmly believes people are born to win, provided they are ready to face their life challenges head-on.
Gaffney’s story is an uplifting tale of strength, persistence, and hard work.
Originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma, he now lives in The Woodlands, Texas, with his wife, Natalie, and two children: a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son. When Gaffney found himself grounded during the pandemic, he wrote a book for children, titled “Airick Flies High,” aimed at showing how difference need not be a barrier.
“I tell kids all the time that even in a classrooms full of kids with two hands, we all have something that makes us different,” he said. “We are all different, and it’s the differences we have that make us unique, limb difference or not. And with hard work and dedication, we can accomplish anything.”
A Will to Thrive
Growing up with a limb difference was not easy for Gaffney. When he was born, his parents were justifiably concerned about how he would cope in life, missing a hand.
“In the hospital, though,” he said, “a nurse told my mom that nothing would ever stand in my way. This bit of encouragement eased a lot of their worries early on. They knew from an early age that, no matter what, I would find a way to do anything I wanted to do.”
The nurse was right.
Ever since his childhood, Gaffney has been resourceful and determined, finding a way to do everything. One of his favorite examples is tying his shoes. When he was young, Gaffney’s parents got him spiraled laces that would tighten when pulled. But, quickly noticing he was the only kid who didn’t know how to tie his shoes, he was determined to learn.
“To do so I would work on it with my mom at home and then she would send me to school with them tied,” he recalled. “At recess, I would untie my shoes and practice tying them over and over until I figured it out.”
Things are the same today; if there’s a task to be done, Gaffney works hard until he finds a way to accomplish it.
‘I Know What I Am Capable Of’
Gaffney’s father is a mechanic for American Airlines, and Gaffney’s love for airplanes started early. Thinking ahead to college, it was all he could imagine himself doing, but the idea of physically flying an airplane with only one hand seemed impossible.
He ultimately went with his other love, medicine, pursuing his passion to become a doctor. But during freshman year, he knew the path he’d taken wasn’t right. He began doing research, and made contact with the chief flight instructor at The University of Oklahoma, a man named Dave.
“Dave sat me in an airplane and showed me around. He told me—and I agreed—that it would not be easy, but he thought it would be possible,” he recalled.
Fast forward through many demonstration flight tests, Gaffney proved and demonstrated his ability to become the restriction-free airline pilot he is today. “I thrive on the doubt that others may have because I know what I am capable of,” he said.
The Book: ‘Airick Flies High’
With his children’s book, Gaffney puts out a vital message to all kids. Having lived through how hard it can be for children to face their peers when they are not “like everyone else,” he spares no effort to motivate and guide his little readers to be more empathetic, understanding, and confident.
The response to the book has been wonderful, Gaffney says, and giving kids with limb differences a cartoon character to identify with has been amazing.
“The smiles on their faces when they see they have a character and a pilot ‘like them’ is incredibly heartwarming,” he said.
One of Gaffney’s favorite quotes comes from a Jim Abbott documentary by author Cormac McCarthy: “Those who have endured some misfortune will always be set apart, but it is that misfortune which is their gift and their strength.”
Most of all, he credits his friends and family for their unfailing support, doing anything they could to help him—often in ingenious ways. Gaffney says he is “forever grateful” to his parents for their unconditional support and the ways they pushed him, enabling him to realize his dreams.
“One thing I loved so much was the way my parents treated me—they would not treat me any different”, he said. “I played baseball growing up and my dad would play catch with me. It was a challenge initially to get the ball from the glove to my hand to make the throw and then get the glove back on in time.
“My dad would throw the ball back to me as soon as he made the catch in an effort to teach me to get the glove back on as soon as possible. It worked.”
Advising others to never give up, he says hard work and dedication can take one far in this world.
“Declare that you can do something and you will find a way,” he said. “Adapt and overcome, and never let anyone tell you no.”
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