Freedom to glide at Drury
Flying has long been thought to be the domain of the fully able-bodied person. True, a very few such as Barry Cardno, whose determination and courage have been noted in this publication, have managed to return to their beloved recreational flying after an appropriate period of recovery and battling the conservative CAA Medical Section. Hand controls for powered aeroplanes can be fitted but are rare indeed.
For such people, gliding is perhaps more attainable. Not only are the medical requirements rather less stringent and confining but a glider, lacking complicated engine controls, also has a simplified cockpit. As long as a pilot has sufficient upper-body and arm strength, hand controls for the rudder can be fitted.
And because gliding for paraplegic pilots is well established in other countries, some manufacturers can supply aircraft already converted.
Leading a campaign for such capability at the Auckland Gliding Club has been Greg Douglas. Suffering a C6/7 incomplete spinal injury in a 1966 road accident, he took to gliding and went solo in 1970, graduating to his own Slingsby Dart 17R in 1976 — and still flying it nearly 40 years later. As an aside, he is also active in Vintage Kiwi for vintage and classic gliders, a subject to be covered in a later Aviation News.
“It’s something exhilarating to do,” says Greg.
Knowing full well the attractions of gliding for able-bodied people, magnified considerably for those with reduced mobility, Greg went to work. On the Auckland Gliding Club committee when a new club two-seat ASK 21 fibreglass trainer was mooted, he was instrumental in the decision to have it converted at the Schleicher factory in Germany for hand controls.
The conversion was funded by the Cuesports Foundation and comprises two additions to the ASK 21’s normal controls. Alongside the standard airbrake lever is a wooden block with a brass plate and a series of holes. A removable pin on the lever engages with any one of the holes to keep the brake in place while the pilot returns the left hand to the adjacent lever, emerging from a slot and likewise inserted in seconds before flight, with direct linkage to the rudder pedals.
Without these two items, the cockpit is entirely standard apart from an unused slot beside the front seat pilot’s left thigh. With them, any paraplegic with normal arm movement to work levers and control stick can experience the joys of flight. Those without the strength to lift themselves in and out of the cockpit can use a donated Invacare patient lift, with the cockpit edge close to the height of a wheelchair.
The Auckland Gliding Club has had several people undertake trial flights under its Glide Freedom banner, with Robert Courtney being the first on 9 December 2009, but nobody took up the challenge seriously until Allan Levet came along.
Just before his 19th birthday, Allan had a motorcycle accident that left him in a wheelchair. Now in his 40s, he has always been interested in flying and, like so many enthusiasts, had his own desktop Flight Simulator setup but with twist control on the joystick to work the rudders.
Just over a year ago, on 23 March 2013, Allan had his first trial flight with instructor Paul O’Neil-Gregory. “We were up for an hour, thermalling,” he says. “That was it — I was hooked.”
Paraplegics in this country have to start from behind in many respects, not least because of societal bias.
“Paraplegics are independent,” says Allan. “We ask for help as a last resort.”
That point is worth keeping in mind, but Allan Levet is an excellent ambassador for his ilk. “You have to grow old but not up,” he says.
His main instructor at the club’s Drury airstrip, south of Auckland, has been Rae Kerr, and his own special day to remember came on 9 November last year.
“Rae and I had just performed a simulated aero tow emergency and jumped off the tow at around 300ft for a downwind landing and we were getting ready to head back up,” says Allan.
“I was going through my cockpit checks, waiting for Rae to get back in the glider, when he just tapped me on the shoulder, smiled, said, ‘Come back in 20min,’ and walked away!
“The flight was really sweet. I towed to 2000ft and started flying around in search of the quite thin thermals. It was brilliant fun to be up there on my own — kind of scary being in charge of a $180,000 flying machine after just 12 or 13 hours of flying time, but absolutely awesome too.
“After 23min I joined the circuit and called, ‘Drury traffic, Alpha Kilo joining downwind for right hand, runway one-nine,’ and had a lovely, if somewhat conservative, landing. My traditional dousing was witnessed and cheered on by about a dozen enthusiastic young flyers from Auckland’s 3 Squadron Air Training Corps who were at the Auckland Gliding Club for flying experience — all great stuff!
“I’ll always remember my ‘9/11’ — 9 November — as an incredible day. Going solo is a once-in-a-lifetime experience!”
New Zealand may be lagging behind other countries in offering opportunities for disabled people to share in the delights of flying, but the Auckland Gliding Club’s initiative in setting up the Glide Freedom programme shows what can be done. Allan Levet is a good example of the enthusiasm it can generate, and the club wants to extend such flying to other North Island sites as well as encouraging other clubs to take up the challenge.
Glide Freedom project coordinator: Greg Douglas at firstname.lastname@example.org
Glide Freedom website: www.glidefreedon.co.nz
-Report by John King, photography by Angela Levet.
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