Did Helen Keller Fly A Plane? Inside The Remarkable Feat Of This Historic Deaf-Blind Activist

Published July 19, 2023
Updated July 20, 2023

In June 1946, Helen Keller flew a plane over the Mediterranean Sea, piloting a Douglas C-54 Skymaster en route from Rome to Paris.

Did Helen Keller Fly A Plane

Library of CongressHelen Keller (right) sitting in the cockpit of a plane in the 1919 film Deliverance.

Helen Keller accomplished many things during her life. Blind and deaf, she wrote 14 books, penned numerous articles, and spent her life advocating for people with disabilities. But did Helen Keller fly a plane?

Though it may seem unlikely for someone who could neither hear nor see, Helen Keller did indeed fly a plane in 1946. That June, she briefly took the controls a plane en route from Rome to Paris, and flew it for 20 minutes.

So how did Keller come to take the controls in the plane’s cockpit? This is the incredible story of how Helen Keller became a one-time pilot.

Helen Keller, An American Inspiration

Young Helen Keller

Historic Collection / Alamy Stock PhotoHelen Keller became blind and deaf at a young age, and later became a famous advocate for the disabled.

Helen Adams Keller wasn’t always blind and deaf. Born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, she lost her sight and her hearing at the age of 19 months. Then, Keller developed a fever possibly from rubella, scarlet fever, encephalitis, or meningitis, which profoundly changed her life.

As Keller later wrote in her autobiography, she lived in a “sea in a dense fog.”

Keller wasn’t entirely unable to communicate with those around her, however. As Smithsonian Magazine notes, she had about 60 signs that she used to communicate, and was able to converse that way with her friend Martha Washington, the daughter of the family’s cook.

Her parents, who initially believed that Keller would not be able to be educated, eventually worked with the Perkins Institute for the Blind to find an instructor for their daughter. That instructor, Anne Sullivan, achieved a breakthrough with the then-seven-year-old when she ran Keller’s hands under a stream of cold water while signing the word “water” into her palm.

Helen Keller And Anne Sullivan

Public DomainHelen Keller And Anne Sullivan. July 1888.

According to Plane & Pilot Magazine, Keller was jubilant and exclaimed “Water!” through hand motions. This event began Keller’s life-long desire to learn about a world she couldn’t see or hear.

By the time Keller was 16, her story had made her a household name in the United States. Many were inspired by her accomplishments, and Keller played an important role in dispelling societal myths about blindness, which had been previously associated with venereal disease.

She went on to become the first deaf-blind person to graduate with a bachelor’s degree and later became a scholar, activist, lecturer, and most unexpectedly, a one-time pilot. So how did Helen Keller fly a plane?

How Helen Keller Flew A Plane Over The Mediterranean

Long before Helen Keller flew a plane in 1946, she developed an admiration for aviation. In 1919, Keller was involved in the making of Deliverance, a silent film about her life and remarkable capabilities. The producers wanted “to show her doing all those things that [able-bodied] people do” from sleeping with closed eyes to getting dressed.

Because airplanes were an exciting, new technology, the producers also suggested that Helen Keller appear in a plane during the film. Though Keller found this unrealistic, she was eager to try flying. A newsreel promotion for the film explained that Keller was in the air for half and hour and that she declared that flying gave her “more physical freedom than ever in her life.”

It wasn’t the last time that Keller had the chance to fly. In 1931, she flew from Newark, New Jersey to Washington D.C. to meet President Herbert Hoover. According to an article from The New York Times, Heller compared the flight “a great graceful bird sailing through the illimitable skies.”

And in 1946, Helen Keller would have a chance to fly a plane herself.

Helen Keller Walking Off Plane

Frederick John Halmarick/Fairfax Media/SuperStock / Alamy Stock PhotoHelen Keller descending from a plane in 1948. During her life, she’d travel as a passenger in airplanes multiple times — and fly one once.

That June, Keller and her companion, Polly Thompson, flew from Rome to Paris. As their plane passed over the Mediterranean Sea, the pilot of the Douglas C-54 Skymaster passed control of the plane to Keller, allowing her to fly the plane for about 20 minutes.

The pilot relayed instructions to Thompson, who explained what to do to Keller by pressing symbols into her hand.

“She sat in the co-pilot’s seat, with the pilot beside her, and I relayed to her his instructions,” Thompson told The Glasgow Bulletin. “The plane crew were amazed at her sensitive touch on the controls. There was no shaking or vibration. She just sat there and flew the plane calmly and steadily.”

Keller told The Glasgow Bulletin: “It was wonderful to feel the delicate movement of the aircraft through the controls.”

Helen Keller’s brief flight made international news. But flying a plane was just one of the many incredible things that Keller accomplished in her life.

Helen Keller’s Impressive Legacy

By the time she had died at the age of 87 in 1968, Helen Keller had accomplished a great deal. She had challenged the stigma surrounding blindness, fearlessly advocated for people with disabilities, and demonstrated, through her own adventurous life, all the things that deaf-blind people were capable of doing.

Helen Keller

The Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive/UCLAHelen Keller posing for a photograph in 1920.

Keller spent much of her adult life working for the American Foundation for the Blind, which involved touring the United States and dozens of other countries around the world in order to speak in support of individuals with vision impairments. She also wrote prolifically, penning 14 books as well as numerous speeches and essays.

On top of being a household name, Helen Keller also became synonymous with the idea of overcoming personal struggles and living life to the fullest extent. The moment she piloted a plane only strengthened this assertion.

For Helen Keller, the sky was the limit.

After reading about Helen Keller’s flight, discover the story of Laura Bridgman, the woman who lived with virtually none of her senses. Then, read the story of Rocky Dennis, a teen with a rare facial deformity who inspired the movie Mask.

Amber Breese
Amber Breese is an Editorial Fellow for All That's Interesting. She graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in political science, history, and Russian. Previously, she worked as a content creator for America House Kyiv, a Ukrainian organization focused on inspiring and engaging youth through cultural exchanges.
Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.