Trailblazing autistic pilot Hayden McDonald has made his way to Queensland’s aviation heartland in Bundaberg as part of his inspiring solo circumnavigation of the country.
The 22 year old departed his hometown of Esperance in Western Australia on 8 September in his small Jabiru J120 light aircraft in an epic unaccompanied mission that is believed to be the first of its kind attempted by an autistic pilot.
During the week, Hayden gave a presentation to community members in an event hosted by Rotary Bundaberg at the Melbourne Hotel while his aircraft underwent some minor maintenance and servicing.
During the two-and-a-half month trip, Hayden plans to visit 28 towns (35 including refuelling stops) in all mainland states, to speak at schools and to communities, as he covers more than 8000 nautical miles in over 80 hours of flying.
He hopes the journey will demonstrate his flying ability and bring greater understanding and acceptance of autism.
Hayden said the trip to-date had not been without some challenges, but he had been overwhelmed with the reception he had received from regional communities and schools.
“There’s definitely been some learning curves, but the reception I’ve received at the towns I’ve visited has been immense and so welcoming,” Hayden said.
“Not only is this a massive personal challenge, which will test my endurance and flying abilities, but importantly I hope it will provide inspiration to other neurodiverse people to follow their dreams.
“I’m determined to spread the message that autistic and neurodiverse pilots can be capable pilots.”
Hayden’s love of aviation started as a young child when he would fly with this grandfather, before learning to fly at age of 15 and obtaining a recreational pilot’s certificate at age 19.
However his dream of flying with the Royal Flying Doctor Service was shattered when the Civil Aviation Safety Authority denied him the opportunity because he was autistic.
Hayden said he had been left disheartened after his medical was refused on the grounds of autism, so he founded Wings Without Barriers to help lobby for acceptance and change.
“I have two goals for this trip,” he said.
“One is to speak to schools and community groups to create better understanding and acceptance of autism, and the second goal is to encourage CASA to be more flexible with its regulatory processes for autistic pilots.
“I want CASA to change the discriminatory medical process.
“I’m not saying scrap the medical process, because no one wants to compromise aeronautical safety, but realistically, the system needs to be modernised to have greater flexibility.
“It is not acceptable to have a blanket rule that ostracises every autistic pilot in Australia.”
West Australian pastoralist Jonathon Emanuel, who has been flying for 30 years, mentored Hayden in preparation for the Wings Without Barriers flight.
“He’s a confident young man, he’s a confident pilot,” Jonathon said.
“He knows what he’s doing, he’s very good at it and he deserves to go further.”
Jonathon said the flight would test Hayden, with weather and mechanical breakdowns likely to be his biggest challenges.
“Things go wrong but I keep saying to Hayden, it’s how you deal with it.
“You can’t throw in the towel and give it away because aviation, and life, is full of challenges.”
After leaving Bundaberg, Hayden plans to head to Longreach, Mt Isa, and the Northern Territory where he will visit Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Daly Waters before heading back into his home state.