This pilot's stutter disappears when he flies

GLENDALE, Arizona -- In the cockpit of a rented two-seater plane on the tarmac of Glendale Municipal Airport, Johnathan Smith set his flight coordinates, checked the right and left magnetos, and confirmed that his readings were in the green. Speaking into the microphone attached to his headset, he addressed the control tower with an unmistakable Brooklyn accent: "This is light sport November eight eight, ready for takeoff on runway one."

With flight permission granted, Smith taxied onto the northbound runway and pushed the throttle. Light sport plane N88 lifted smoothly into the sky, banked over the University of Phoenix stadium and headed east toward the rising sun.

Early riser

Smith flies a few times a week, usually taking short trips before work, as he tries to accumulate the last dozen hours he needs to become a certified flight instructor. He suspects that his voice is sometimes the first one flight controllers hear in the morning. But what they don't hear is what happens when Smith takes the headset off. Because without it, he stutters so severely that for most of his life, he didn't believe he could be a pilot at all.

Now 47, Smith has had a stuttering disorder since childhood. Some words and sentences come easily, but at other times he struggles from syllable to syllable. Telephones are a challenge.

The attempts to cure him have varied widely — except in their results. Doctors cut the membranes under his tongue and inside his upper lip. They gave him a beeper-like device that delivered electrical shocks at regular intervals. Speech therapists taught him breathing techniques and enunciation drills. Nothing made much difference.

 

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