The Maryland landing ended a nearly cross-country journey for the 22-year-old Arizonan who piloted the Cessna on a five-day adventure from her home state into New Mexico, across the Midwest, with a final leg from Kentucky.
“Woo! Good job, Kaiya!” screamed the dozen or so supporters, including students who carried signs that read “Go, Kaiya, Go” in English and Braille symbols.
She had a co-pilot on her trip who communicated with her throughout the flights, giving her real-time vital information.
A stormy forecast brought her to the D.C. area one day ahead of schedule for a trip that commemorated World Sight Day, designed to be an “International Day of Awareness” promoted each October, according to the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness.
The journey was sponsored by the Foundation for Blind Children, a 70-year-old Arizona organization that teaches about 2,000 students of all ages how to navigate life without full sight, said CEO Marc Ashton. And in Armstrong’s case, they provided the opportunity to learn to fly without full sight.
The organization sponsors “Challenge Events” for students, including a hike up Mount Kilimanjaro, swims to Alcatraz Island and braving rapids on the Colorado River. The group nervously tracked Armstrong’s progress through a GPS app as she left Phoenix, was rerouted from Colorado to Las Vegas because of bad weather and continued landing and taking off eastward bound.
“It’s really to give our kids that moment of glory to have the rest of their lives to sow confidence,” Ashton said.
This flight was designed to inspire, to show that if one blind woman could fly across the country, then others who are blind or have restricted sight can strive to be whatever they choose in life, Ashton said. The organization brought several teenagers to cheer the landing and introduce them to Washington, D.C., he said.
“This was just an amazing event that I never thought would be possible,” said Marilin Huinac, a 16-year-old student. “She’s doing this for us. We can do anything. Like she said, ‘There are no limits.’ ”
Armstrong’s sight began to falter as a 14-year-old when she left her Goodyear, Ariz., house for a miles-long bike ride. Within minutes, the world grew fuzzy, and she quickly returned home to tell her mother, Kamla Armstrong, who thought she simply had an allergic reaction to something.
But soon her mother looked into her eyes and realized something was deeply wrong.
“Her pupil had ballooned. It looked like upside down Mickey Mouse ears,” Kamla Armstrong said in an interview.
She endured three surgeries that promised improvement but left her sight only more blurry, her parents said. It took years before doctors said an autoimmune disease led to the condition.
Over several years, Armstrong’s eyesight deteriorated, and she navigated her high school years without medical or academic support, falling off sidewalk curbs and bumping into things, her parents recalled. By senior year, the family purchased a guide cane and turned to YouTube videos to learn how to use it, her father, Mark Armstrong, said.
She grew closer to her family, especially her mother, who often served as a set of eyes for her but insisted her daughter join family outings to play putt-putt golf or go ice skating. Kamla Armstrong told her oldest child to “keep faith in the Lord,” she said.
Kaiya Armstrong said she struggled through high school, but her life took a turn when she was 19 and discovered the Foundation for Blind Children. The foundation helped her get on a path that led to learning Braille and attending community college, where she now studies criminology and has plans to attend law school, she said.
In March, the organization offered her the chance to learn to fly. She was chosen from a competitive group of students and jumped at the opportunity, even though she had never taken a flight and had traveled only to neighboring California and Nevada. She had previously believed there were several things she’d never be able to do, chief among them: drive and fly.
The foundation enrolled her in months-long intensive flight instruction. She trained with Leopard Aviation, which paired her with instructor Tyler Sinclair, who helped her learn all the intricacies of the cockpit and co-piloted her epic journey.
The skies above are “peaceful,” Armstrong said. Her limited sight is best described as “tunnel vision,” she explained.
That vision did provide Armstrong with some striking vistas of the landscape below her, as she witnessed a palette of green forests and blue lakes vastly different from the beige, sandy ground she typically observed in Arizona.
Even the beginning of her trip produced a view that mimicked chocolate chip cookies, a sea of brown dotted with dark rooftops and rocks below, she recalled.
“It’s just so interesting what you can see, when you can’t see,” she said.
Those memories will remain thick in her mind, she said, but what made more of an impression were her interactions with groups of supporters along the trip, including other blind people and airport crews. Armstrong said she hopes the journey lingers in their minds like the colors will in hers.
“This is just such a huge moment, not just for me and my family, but the entire visually impaired community,” Armstrong said. “It’s something that I want everybody to remember.”