Blind adventurer aims to set record in light aircraft

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The Independent Online

An adventurer who holds two world records on land and water embarked yesterday on a mission to become the first blind man to fly around the country.

An adventurer who holds two world records on land and water embarked yesterday on a mission to become the first blind man to fly around the country.

After three years of training, Steve Cunningham, 41, from Banbury, Oxfordshire, will fly a light aircraft to a string of cities from Belfast to Glasgow as part of his five-day challenge. He completed the first leg of his journey yesterday by flying from Biggin Hill airfield in south-east London to Newcastle via Sheffield.

For Mr Cunningham, who lost his sight at the age of 12, trying to set a record in the air was a natural progression from the speed records he has already broken on land and water. Speaking before his departure, he said: "The hat-trick was always set up to do land, sea and air, and I knew I could do land and sea, but this has been the biggest challenge."

Mr Cunningham, who is also captain of the England blind football team and a keen golfer, has spent the past three years learning to fly using "talking software", which allows him to maintain control of the plane by receiving constant updates relating to its height, position and speed. During his flights, he is accompanied by a co-pilot in the four-seater Piper Warrior light plane in case the software fails.

Mr Cunningham likened his flying experiences to those of sighted pilots who fly "blind" during the night or during adverse weather conditions. "You don't fly an aircraft on what you can see, you fly an aircraft on the information you are getting back from the control panel," he said. To put his skills to the test, he and his co-pilot flew during the freak storms last week to ensure he was prepared for any weather.

Mr Cunningham was eight years old when he was diagnosed with glaucoma and he lost his sight completely four years later. "Losing my sight at the age of 12 was not fun," he said. "I had to change but I can prove that change can be healthy. I am far more successful now than I would have been."

He proved his determination five years ago, when he became the fastest blind man on land, achieving an average speed of more than 147mph driving a Chrysler Dodge Viper on a Leicestershire airfield. Then the following year, in September 2000, he performed his second stunt by setting an offshore powerboat record in the English Channel off Bournemouth.

But Mr Cunningham, who has been sponsored by Orange for his latest venture, insisted: "It is not about setting records, it is about proving to people what you can achieve - and what you can achieve is always more than you think you can."

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