Meet Justin Meaders: First pilot with paraplegia to race in Reno & take home F1 gold

By Natasha McKenty | January 4, 2023

Estimated reading time 11 minutes, 24 seconds.

Formula One (F1) Reno Air Race pilot Justin Meaders has faced his fair share of obstacles. Yet, what would be a roadblock for some, served as a mere detour for him. A paraplegic pilot who won gold at the 2022 STIHL National Air Races, Meaders says limits don’t exist — not even in the sky.

While the aviation industry is full of inspiring stories, Meaders’ journey of perseverance aligns with (and even challenges) some of aviation’s most impactful “never-say-never” narratives. Despite the physical hurdles he has faced (and the resilience of those who wished to challenge his ability), the former motorcycle racer and firefighter/EMT proves that physical ability becomes a weakness only when the mind allows it.

Justin Meaders with his SR-1 Snoshoo aircraft, “Limitless.” Tom Wilson/Kitplanes Magazine Photo

“Yes, I am a paraplegic. I have a disability. But as with any issues that you have, whatever they may be, your own limitations — something you placed on yourself — are a huge factor that can be overcome,” said Meaders.

He attributes most of his success to a positive mindset. “[Triumph] doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen,” he said.

No limit

The self-proclaimed thrill-seeker fell in love with extreme sports at the age of five, and eventually went on to race motorcycles.

“I didn’t really notice the adrenaline rush until afterwards. Then, I’d finish the race and notice my hand had a little shake,” he told Skies. “I knew what I was doing was dangerous, but I never focused on what could go wrong.”

Paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 1999 (at the age of 22), he was forced to reconsider his racing future. Six months after being released from the hospital, he began training in competitive handcycling.

Despite his injury, Meaders explained that he has not experienced remorse or depression. In fact, he sees his life after the accident as more fulfilling and “on a much different path.” Meaders believes becoming “disabled” has opened doors and offered opportunities that he would not have otherwise been afforded.

Meaders competed at the 2022 National Championship Air Races in the Formula One class, and took home gold. Photo courtesy of Justin Meaders

“[Just because] someone has told you, ‘No,’ doesn’t mean that that’s not possible.”

In 2016, he qualified for a para triathlon in Rio, but an opportunity to begin air racing had enticed him to curb his Olympic endeavor and go for gold in the air — at 320 miles per hour.

Enter aviation

His love for aviation started “around the age of six,” he recalled.
“My dad took me up in his Cessna 172, and we were up for like 30 minutes; he looked over at me and asked if I wanted to fly it. And every time after that, if that airplane started, I would be in it,” Meaders quipped.

“After I got hurt, my path changed, and aviation returned.”
His thirst for speed and mind-over-matter outlook led him to become the first paraplegic air racing pilot. He decided to build his own race plane, which he debuted in 2018.

“I was like, ‘I’m going to build an airplane just to race and have fun.’ And then I started experimenting with ways to make it go faster and faster, and then the whole thing snowballed into what I’m racing today.”

Although it took him longer than anticipated, Meaders was able to build his SR-1 Snoshoo (with a Catto wing and tail, complete with hand controls) in under three years. And other than the prototype, it’s the only Snoshoo currently flying.

Meaders was able to build his SR-1, the only Snoshoo currently flying, in under three years. Don “Bucky” Dawson Photo

“You really wear these airplanes,” he said. “You get in [the aircraft], strap in, and you’re a part of it. You feel everything, every vibration.

“So, it’s neat to be in something like that, but you can’t be off your game when flying one of those airplanes,” he continued. “They will hurt you quickly if you’re not paying attention, or if you’re not fully ‘with it’ that day.

“I always tell people it’s more fun after I finish; [that’s when] I realize how much fun it was. But when you’re [flying], you’re so focused that it’s not really a giggling and flying around type of experience.”

From mentee to mentor

Since the early days of his air racing career, Meaders has evolved from a mentee to a mentor.

He recalled his own search for a mentor. Online research led him to Mike Smith, an experienced pilot and flight school operator with paraplegia.

“I met [Smith], and we started doing some flight training. He worked with me all through the process — including the medical, which was difficult to get through. It was a huge benefit to have him around.”

Today, Meaders admits that his time spent mentoring kids is a highlight of his journey. Through the Challenged Athlete Foundation, he’s been able to volunteer his time with children at the Triathlon Kids Camp, as well as various other camps, clinics, and events.

Justin meaders SR-1 aircraft interior
Meaders’ SR-1 is complete with hand controls. Photo courtesy of Justin Meaders

“I try to help as many people as I can now because without my own mentor, I would have had to figure everything out myself.”

Flying is an opportunity to “get away from the chair,” he shared.
“When you’re in the airplane, you can have fun — not tied down by anything. There’s freedom in it, and I think that’s a big part of it for me,” added Meaders.

“The racing is a completely different thing. That’s the adrenaline, and it’s fun, but they are two completely separate things.”

Building on success

Like training for a paralympic sport, remaining in top condition is essential to Meaders’ success as an air race pilot.

“Turning an aircraft at 260 mph, with about 6Gs, means your days are numbered if you aren’t physically fit,” he said. “I only have around 750 flight hours. So, I’m still new compared to the other racers in Reno. I often hear, ‘Oh wow, you don’t have a thousand hours?’

“It’s more about how current you are, and how qualified you are in that airplane,” he added. “Having more than 20,000 total hours is great, but if you have never flown [a particular] airplane, you won’t be any more proficient in it than anybody else.”

In addition to winning the F1 Air Racing World Championships, Meaders achieved “Rookie of the Year” in his debut air racing season. Photo courtesy of Justin Meaders

So, what’s next for the athlete who achieved “Rookie of the Year” in his debut air racing season, and went on to win the F1 Air Racing World Championships in a custom-designed race plane that he built himself?
More racing; new records; and, never settling for less than limitless (which also happens to be the name of his championship-winning aircraft).

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1 Comment

  1. Good story….I’m one of the last surviving members of the International Wheelchair Aviators which was last headed up by Mike Smith prior to his passing. Mike actually purchased his last airplane from me (PA-28-180) along with the Blackwood hand rudder control when I became inactive. It’s good to know that others are still reaching for the sky….it’s another world!!

    I believe the STC for the Blackwood rudder control is still valid and owned by a repair shop in Iowa.

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