How Did Helen Keller Fly a Plane in 1946?

By: Sascha Bos  | 
You can visit Madame Tussauds of New York to see this realistic wax figure of Helen Keller in person. spatuletail / Shutterstock

Helen Keller accomplished a lot in her lifetime. Despite becoming deaf-blind at 18 months of age, she authored multiple books, engaged in outspoken activism and gave lectures around the world. But did Helen Keller fly a plane?


Who Was Helen Keller?

Helen Keller (1880-1968) was a United States–based author, activist and educator. The story of how a young, deaf-blind Keller learned how to read and write with instruction from her partially blind teacher Anne Sullivan (1866–1936) is one of the world's most famous representations of disability.

But Keller was more than just a symbol. After she graduated from Radcliffe College, Keller co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union and traveled the world supporting the rights of women, workers and people with disabilities. She also flew an airplane in 1946.


Helen Keller's Flight

In June 1946, Helen Keller piloted a four-engine Douglas Skymaster for 20 minutes of its route over the Mediterranean Sea from Rome to Paris. Keller, a frequent traveler, was in Europe representing the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind.


How Did Helen Keller Fly a Plane?

The Federal Aviation Administration's medical standards require airline pilots to have 20/20 vision in both eyes, so many people are surprised to learn that a deaf-blind person flew a plane. According to the article "Wonderful Helen Keller Flies a Plane," published in The Bulletin, Keller piloted the plane with help from her interpreter, Polly Thomson.

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


"It was wonderful to feel the delicate movement of the aircraft through the controls," Keller said.

Who Was Polly Thomson?

Mary Agnes "Polly" Thomson (1885–1960) was Helen Keller's interpreter and companion for 46 years and the person who relayed the pilot's instructions to Keller when she flew a plane. At the time of the flight, the pair had worked together for 32 years.

According to Perkins School for the Blind (which both Keller and Sullivan attended), Thomson met Keller through her hairdresser, who cut Sullivan and Keller's hair. Thomson enjoyed travel and accompanied Keller on multiple tours of Europe.


She worked as Keller's secretary and, after Sullivan's death in 1936, served as Keller's main interpreter.