One-armed Leeds pilot is flying high

Have your say

Waking up to find you’ve lost your right arm is, by anyone’s standards, a traumatic experience, but for Steven Robinson it was the start of a new life. Julie Marshall reports...

Losing an arm at the age of 18 is enough to stop anyone in their tracks but Leeds man Steven Robinson, now aged 50, has taken on everything that life has thrown at him.

He’s just invented a prosthetic arm that he hopes will help him to fly and has set up in business as a motivational speaker to help others achieve their goals.

You could say that life hasn’t been very fair to Steven up to now. Growing up in a single-parent household in the slums of Woodhouse in the 60s - known colloquially as Buggy Park on account of the cockroaches - he was mercilessly bullied.

Although the family moved to Scotthall Road when he was seven years old - the house in fact where he still lives - life didn’t get much better.

In fact it got a whole lot worse when a severe attack of acne made him even more of a target for the bullies and he sank into depression.

The bullying got worse and Steven began to skip school, attending only two or three days each week by the time he was 13.

To while away the hours he bought a motorbike from a friend for £10 and spent hours riding around the fields across the road from his house. This went on for five years until a horrific accident almost cost him his life.

A mid-air collision with another rider left him critically ill with damaged lungs, spleen and liver, a broken leg, and most crucially, a severed arm. The other rider’s footpeg had ripped off his right arm at the shoulder joint and it was found 100 metres away, too damaged to re-attach.

Steven says: “April 19, 1982 was the day my life changed for ever, but surprisingly it was a positive thing.

“As I lay in hospital I’d been told I’d lost my arm but I didn’t believe it as I could still ‘feel’ it.

“ It was not until a nurse took me into the bathroom for the first time that I realised the truth. But, as I looked in the mirror a wave of euphoria washed over me. The strong antibiotics had cured my acne, I didn’t care about my arm, my spots had gone.

“I walked out of that bathroom a new person. I had gone in as a spotty, ugly, shy, boy with no confidence and walked out as a strong young man who had already survived against all the odds.”

Then, by his own admission, unemployable, his promised job as a Formula 1 mechanic now out of his reach, despite him achieving top marks in his college exams.

Steven threw himself into a period of self-education and took classes in just about everything he could: cooking, baking, Spanish language, history, woodwork, metalwork, engineering and computing.

As a natural problem solver and following yet more night-school classes in electronics and amplification, he began buying, repairing and restoring vintage jukeboxes, amassing quite a collection.

With no formal qualifications to his name, he took an access course and was awarded a place at Leeds Metropolitan University to study computing. In his final year he invented an MP3 jukebox which went on to be a commercial success – selling 400 in the first few months alone and leading to the launch of his own company.

But a long and protracted litigation suit against a rival company who, he claims stole his ideas, robbed him of his hard-won wealth and left him a broken man.

Steven says of that time: “Despite winning my case, after the six-year battle I lost everything else, my business, my girlfriend and all my money. And most crucially I lost all my faith in humanity and the judicial system.”

Closer to committing suicide than he’d ever been before, he read about an organisation called Flying Scholarships for Disabled People (FSDP) and, on a whim, decided to apply, despite being so afraid of flying as a young man he had to have a course of hypnotherapy to even board a plane.

A few days after attending the selection process at RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire, he received a phone call that he’s sure saved his life.

“That phone call to say I’d been successful turned my life around and restored my faith,” says Steven. “All my life people had taken from me and I’d received nothing in return and here were these important, wealthy people offering me the chance to fly.”

Steven went down to RAF Cranwell to begin his lessons but once in the air problems arose as his newly-acquired prosthetic arm was not up to the task and fell off each time he tried to operate the joystick.

Undaunted he decided he would solve the problem himself and would suspend his lessons until he could make himself a new arm that was up to the job .

Twelve months on, it’s still at the prototype stage but a patent has been applied for and he’s confident that, within a few months it will be ready to go into production.

He’s not giving too much away at this stage, he’s been caught out too many times before when his ideas have been copied, but he says it has a number of “unique features” that make it stand out from anything else available at present.

Once it’s finished and he’s gained his pilot’s licence ,his plan is to set off on a grand adventure, perhaps flying around the world and setting some sort of record.

But first he has to try and secure additional sponsorship. The FSDP scholarship is only good for 20 hours flying time, he needs 40 to gain his private licence.

Steven has also recently learned to ride on horseback, overcoming a lifelong fear of the animals and winning a regional trophy in a Riding for the Disabled dressage competition and securing a place in the finals next month; his ultimate goal is to compete in the Paralympics.

If that were not enough he has also launched a new career as a motivational speaker, to share with others the benefit of his unique take on life and his attitude that you can do anything if you put your mind to it.

He says: “I’ve spoken to lots of different groups about how everyone is capable of overcoming obstacles and building their own future. I say to them, if I can achieve all of these things with one arm, what are you capable of achieving with two?”

Despite his positive stance on life the years of discrimination are still uppermost in his mind.

He can still recall with startling clarity the time when he first went into Leeds City Centre after his accident.

“People just stopped and stared and that was difficult to deal with,” he says. Despite being the object of attention, Steven took the decision early on not to wear a prosthetic arm just to avoid offending other people’s sensibilities.

He says: “I decided that I didn’t want to wear an arm just to fit it and to make other people comfortable. They are really uncomfortable to wear and difficult to put on and I wanted to be comfortable.”

Steven suffers from phantom limb which means he can still feel his right arm.

He says: “I knew loads of people who suffered from something similar, instead of phantom limb they had phantom barriers.

“I saw people who had obstacles in their way which didn’t exist, just like my right arm. It’s just a question of overcoming them.”

He adds: “With passion, determination and the right attitude you can achieve anything you put your mind to”.

The Grand Theatre, Leeds. Picture by Simon Hulme.

£12m Leeds Grand Theatre regeneration plan includes a little extra help from the taxpayer