Engineer weakened but driven to keep doing what he loves
Aug. 1, 2003
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Tim Garrett designs military fighter planes by day and is building his own airplane in the basement of his home by night, all while battling multiple sclerosis.
Garrett is at the Experimental Aviation Association's AirVenture this week, billed as the world's largest gathering of recreational aviators.
The aeronautical engineer for Boeing Corp. in St. Louis is sharing his story about living with multiple sclerosis while continuing to fly and pursue his professional goals.
"Having MS has slowed me a bit, but it's not going to stop me," the 43-year-old Garrett said in an interview.
Multiple sclerosis is a chronic, neurological disease that often strikes
people between the ages of 20 and 40. While there is no cure, there are
viable, effective treatments for the relapsing-remitting course of the
disease that Garrett has battled for 16 years.
Visions of Wright, Lindbergh
An avid airplane buff, Garrett always wanted to follow in the footsteps of the Wright brothers and Charles Lindbergh. He dreamed of crossing oceans in his own plane.
In 1987, he was thrown for a loop when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Garrett had gone to his doctor to figure out why he was experiencing numbness on his left side.
"After my spinal tap and MRI, I was told 'The good news is you don't have a brain tumor, the bad news is you have MS,'" Garrett recalled. "I wasn't exactly sure what this meant, so I went home and read everything I could get my hands on to educate myself about this disease."
At first, he didn't share his diagnosis with anyone. He was concerned that others would look at him differently or think that he could no longer fulfill his demanding job requirements.
"For a long time, I thought that I would not be able to pursue my dream of building my own plane, or even be able to continue flying," Garrett said.
But through some tenacious efforts, he has been able to keep his pilot's license, since the disease has not affected his ability to control an airplane.
Now, Garrett is building his own airplane, which he plans to fly in a multicity tour.
The plane is a Zenith Zodiac XL 601, a kit-built aircraft that Garrett is putting together in the basement of his St. Louis home. In about a month, he will move the various components to an airplane hangar for final assembly.
"The wings are actually stored in my garage, and the tail is in one
of the side rooms in my basement," Garrett said.
Building ideal plane
At Boeing, Garrett is an advanced aircraft design engineer and program manager. One of the planes he helped design was a McDonnell Douglas X-36 technology demonstrator, which an aviation magazine said was the most maneuverable aircraft in the world.
Now that Garrett has told his colleagues about his disease, they've been supportive, he said.
"I was really proud of the fact that until five years ago I had perfect attendance at work," he said. "And I was diagnosed with MS in the late 1980s before there were therapies available. I urge everyone who is diagnosed today to work with their doctor to find the right therapy options for them. Each evening, I take my injection, and I feel empowered that I am doing something to fight my MS."
Garrett completed his pilot's training in 1984, before he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. To keep with the tradition of cutting tail feathers after a first solo flight, his instructor cut the tail of Garrett's shirt and labeled it with the date.
Garrett said he has the tail of that shirt hanging in his basement for visitors to see.
"When I am flying, I feel free and in control of my life," he said.
"I forget about my medical concerns when I am circling with a hawk in the
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