Meet Hayden McDonald, founder of Wings Without Barriers

Hayden McDonald, founder of Wings Without Barriers, is circumnavigating regional Australia on a solo flight to bring acceptance and inclusion for those with autism.


Trailblazer Hayden McDonald has launched an inspiring solo circumnavigation of Australia, in what is believed to be the first of its kind attempted by an autistic pilot.

On 11 September, the 22-year-old took flight from his hometown of Esperance on the epic unaccompanied mission in a small J120 Jabiru light aircraft.

On his journey, he will be stopping to speak to schools and community groups to promote acceptance and inclusion and a glimpse into the life of a person living with autism.

“I’m really excited for this,” Hayden said. “Not only is this a massive personal challenge, which will test my endurance and flying abilities, but importantly, I hope it will provide inspiration to other neurodiverse people to follow their dreams.

“You probably couldn’t get a smaller or slower plane, and this journey will take time, but I’m determined to spread the message that autistic and neurodiverse pilots can be capable pilots. We need to create better understanding and acceptance.”


Hayden McDonald
Hayden and his grandad on an early flight


Love at first flight


Hayden’s love of aviation started as a child when he would fly with his grandfather in a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. At the age of 15 he took to the cockpit himself, obtaining a recreational pilot’s certificate at 17.

But his dream of flying with the Royal Flying Doctor Service was brought to a halt when the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) denied him a medical licence on the grounds that his “autism spectrum disorder represents unacceptable risk to aeronautical navigation.”

So, he founded Wings Without Barriers to help lobby for acceptance and change.

It started out as a Youtube channel in 2020, where Hayden discussed the everyday challenges of life on the spectrum. In February 2023, he was a winner of ABC Trailblazers, which helped cement his plan to fly solo around the country to spread his message even further.

What is it he loves the most about flying?

“The isolation,” he says. “It’s a way to get away from the world where no one judges you and you can just be yourself. The aviation community down here in Esperance has been very accepting of who I am. It’s also about the journey, not the destination, as you get to see a lot of beautiful things along the way and it can change your perspective on the world.”


Hayden’s Jabiru J120, which he will use to fly around Australia


The plane


He’s undertaking this journey in a Jabiru J120, made by the only Australian aircraft manufacturer, based in Bundaberg. It’s the same aircraft he trained in five years ago and he purchased it in 2022. Hayden says that his second year of aircraft ownership has had its highs and lows.

“It does struggle in the cold,” he says. “Sometimes it’s like a teenager and does not want to get out of bed. But it’s a pretty economical aircraft by aviation standards. It uses 13 litres an hour out of a 16-litre tank, so you have about 4.2 hours including half an hour reserve. It cruises at about 8 to 9 knots. It’s a small two-seater, sitting at 2 metres wide and 5 metres long.

“The instrumentation is very basic,” continues Hayden. “I installed a portable EFIS, which is a battery-operated flight information system showing my pitch, roll, air speed and altitude, among other things.”

WA pastoralist Johnathon Emanuel, who has been flying for 30 years, has mentored Hayden in preparation for the Wings Without Barriers flight. Johnathon said the flight would test Hayden, with weather and mechanical breakdowns likely to be his biggest challenges.

“Things go wrong but I keep saying to Hayden, it’s how you deal with it. You can’t throw in the towel and give it away because aviation, and life, is full of challenges.”


Hayden McDonald, founder of Wings Without Barriers


The sky’s the limit


“I have two goals for this trip,” says Hayden. “One is to speak to schools and community groups to create better understanding and acceptance of autism, and the second goal is to encourage CASA to be more flexible with its regulatory processes for autistic pilots.

“Autism is not a one-size-fits-all. It is not acceptable to have a blanket rule that ostracises every autistic pilot in Australia.

“I want CASA to change the discriminatory medical process. I’m not saying scrap the medical process, because no one wants to compromise aeronautical safety, but realistically, the system needs to be modernised to have greater flexibility.”

Australian entrepreneur and aviator Dick Smith is among a band of supporters and sponsors who are backing Hayden’s mission.

Hayden has a strong message for young people.

“If you don’t have any opportunities, make one. That’s something I can’t stress enough. Wings Without Barriers came about when I had nothing to go on in the aviation sector. I want to show them what it’s like to be on the spectrum and why you shouldn’t judge people just on the definition. Bullying is not okay, and it’s not something that should be accepted in the world today, especially in 2023.”


Hayden and his dog, Jack


The route


Hayden took off from Esperance on 11 September, flying east across the Nullarbor to South Australia with stops in Ceduna, Whyalla, Port Augusta and his mother’s hometown of Orroroo.

Crossing the border to Broken Hill, he flies south to Mildura and Warracknabeal in Victoria. From there, he will travel to Parkes, Warnervale/Gosford, Dubbo and Moree in New South Wales.

In Queensland, Hayden will fly to Dalby, Bundaberg, Longreach, Cloncurry and Mount Isa before heading to the Top End visiting Tennant Creek, Alice Springs and Daly Waters.

Back in Western Australia, the route will take him to Kununurra, Nerrima Station and Broome in the North-West, before he flies down the coast, visiting Carnarvon, Geraldton, Bunbury, Albany and back to Esperance in early to mid-November.

Prior to this journey, Hayden’s favourite place to fly was the lake between Norseman and Kalgoorlie. “When it’s filled up it’s like a mirror,” he says. “You’ve got the contrast of the white clouds and blue sky with red dirt, and then you’ve got the reflection as well. But ask me again when I get back and I might have a different answer!”

To keep up with Hayden’s journey, visit and follow him on instagram @wings_without_barriers.

To read about other homegrown heroes, head to our Aussie Stars page!

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