They heard his airplane engine rumble off in the distance before they saw Sean O’Donnell wing his way into view. That’s when the cheers went up.
He was 1,000 feet above them, framed by a blue sky and billowing clouds. But there was no mistaking it was him.
O’Donnell dipped his left wing on the first pass, and then circled three times around the MossRehab campus in Elkins Park on July 1. On each pass of the flyover, the four or five dozen health-care workers and staff at Moss waved and whooped as O’Donnell soared overhead.
It was a celebration of achievement, dedication, and gratitude. And, although initially designed to honor the therapists, doctors, and nurses at Moss, O’Donnell, too, felt the privilege of being involved.
“This is an example of what can be done” via rehab, O’Donnell said a day before the flight.
O’Donnell is an example of that, too. The 42-year-old Newtown Square resident was paralyzed and lost the use of his legs in 1995 when a car hit the motorcycle he was riding. Since then, he has become a successful product manager, computer engineer, motivational speaker, writer, and – maybe best of all – passionate pilot.
“No picture can capture the beauty of flying,” O’Donnell said. “It’s almost indescribable. It’s a gift, and you have to share it. The people who helped me, and those at Moss, help patients think outside the box and chase their dreams no matter which different roads they take. They help us see what is possible.”
The flyover was conceived by O’Donnell and friend Kerry O’Connor a few weeks ago. They met a dozen years ago when O’Donnell was working on a project at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital, where O’Connor worked in the communications department.
Now working at the Einstein Healthcare Network as a senior communications manager, O’Connor asked O’Donnell to honor the staff at Moss for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. The flight would also mark the halfway point in the year-long celebration of Moss’ 120th anniversary.
“I know it’s not the Thunderbirds,” O’Donnell said, referring to the famous U.S. Air Force fighter squadron that performs aerobatic flyovers at big events. “But it’s sincere and meant to show that we care.”
It was a beautiful day for flying. O’Donnell took off from Northeast Philadelphia Airport and flew four minutes to Moss. On the ground, folks made sure O’Donnell could see them, too. They arranged hundreds of yellow papers to form the rehab’s motto, Challenge Accepted, in huge letters on a hillside outside the emergency room entrance.
“This is a simple thing,” Alberto Esquenazi, the chief medical officer at Moss, said of the homemade letters and the flyover about to take place. “But it describes who we are. We may do the initial work, but it’s about the person in the end. We’re so happy to see a person with a disability do this. It closes the loop for us.”
O’Donnell has been closing loops and reaching out to others for years. He traces that largely to the reaction his father had to the motorcycle accident on Sept. 18, 1995, when O’Donnell was a senior at La Salle High School. Doctors predicted it would take him months to reach the rehab milestones needed to return to school and graduate with his class on time.
“My father said, ‘I want you back in 30 days,‘” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell went to Magee Rehab - and was back in 32 days. He graduated with his class and then from Villanova with a degree in computer engineering. He’s held good jobs in e-learning and information technology at Villanova and other employers, including his current gig at Phenom, a talent management managing company in Ambler.
But the sky always called loudest. “My proudest personal achievement is enabling other people with disabilities to achieve their dreams of flight,” he wrote on LinkedIn.
O’Donnell was born the fourth of five children to goal-oriented parents and raised in Brewerytown and Miquon, Montgomery County. He loved computers from the start, studied code as a kid, and says he thought “outside the box” on practically everything.
He was also obsessed with flight.
He went to every air show he could. Collected 150 model airplanes. Covered his bedroom walls with aircraft photos. Tom Cruise, star of the 1986 hit Top Gun, was his hero.
After his injury, O’Donnell came across Able Flight, a nonprofit founded in 2006 by pilot Charles Stites. It connects people with certain disabilities to scholarship-funded pilot training programs. O’Donnell earned his license through Able Flight and now mentors other pilots.
O’Donnell’s plane is a sleek two-seat Sky Arrow light sport aircraft with hand controls instead of foot pedals. But the art of flying, he said, is the same for everyone, disability or not. So is life, he has discovered.
“You can have a flight plan,” O’Donnell likes to say about practically every situation. “But you have to learn how to adapt.”