“So do you want to try a little wing-over?” says Bob Hagen from the back seat.
“Absolutely!” I reply.
“OK, just follow along with me!” Hagen says, meaning that I should keep my paws on the stick to learn the control movements for the maneuver. Hagen has been a glider pilot instructor and tow-pilot for many, many years.
He gains a little speed and pushes the stick forward. The nose of the glider drops steeply. The view out the canopy is now filled with green as we dive to pick up speed. The sound of the air rushing past increases as we accelerate. All else is silent in the engineless aircraft.
Hagen pulls sharply back on the stick and we zoom skyward in a steep climb. Now all I can see out the front is the cloudless blue sky. As we are rocketing upward, Hagen moves the joystick hard left and rolls us onto our side, holding that altitude as we bleed off speed. The sound of rushing air diminishes until it is near silence in the glider. Then the nose drops sharply and we fall nearly vertical toward the ground as the whoosh of the air returns. The green fields once again fill the windscreen. I feel the joystick move back and my shoulders slump from the G-force as Hagen pulls us out of the dive. What a thrill!
“OK, you’ve got it,” says Hagen cheerily, handing over control of the glider. “How’s your stomach?” I can’t see him, but I’m sure he’s grinning.
“Stomach’s fine, but I’m not used to pulling Gs!” I’m a little dizzy from the extra force of gravity. Pulling out of the dive made us feel a little over twice our weight, and as a quad without any muscle power to keep my blood from pooling in my lower extremities, I might be more vulnerable to the effects.
“I can do a milder one,” I say. I perform a gentler wing-over with a near 90-degree bank. The nose falls toward the ground. Then I level the wings and pull back on the stick to get us out of the dive. It’s going to be hard to wipe this smile off my face!
Controlling the aircraft gives you such overwhelming freedom, and the view from up here is incredible. The fields paint the landscape with vibrant greens and yellows. There is the occasional pond, cars driving slowly along like small toys, and the cloudless sky that is such a beautiful deep blue. Up in the air controlling the glider you’re as free as a bird, and the fact that most of your time is spent on the ground with your butt strapped to a wheelchair is the farthest thing from your mind.
I’m a C5-6 quad since a car accident in 1986. Back in my “first life,” I really loved aviation (still do). At age 18 I had my private pilot’s license and later completed aircraft maintenance engineer’s training. My world revolved around things that fly. Since my accident I’ve been involved with flying radio-controlled aircraft, but nothing seemed like really being there. I became interested in flying gliders quite a few years ago, but thought that it was way out of reach. An article about people with disabilities flying gliders changed all that, pointing out that there are hand-controlled gliders readily available, and that gliding clubs welcome people with disabilities. The only restriction is a 240-pound weight limit per person. The Edmonton Soaring Club, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, has a four-wheel drive Kubota tractor that is equipped with a lift of their own design (very similar to an engine hoist) that can quickly and easily lift people with disabilities into the gliders, and it’s relatively close to home for us.
Flying the glider takes very little physical strength. Through trial-and-error and help from friends we have devised a cuff that keeps my wrist stiff. It has a loop to grip the stick. I also require some foam rubber bracing beside me (made from somebody’s memory-foam pillow … ssshh!), which helps to hold my elbow in while pushing the stick to the left. Once I’ve transferred into the glider, the seat is comfortable and the control stick sits within easy reach between my knees.
The glider we are flying is a high-performance, two-seat Puchacz. The “Pooch,” as the club calls it, has a glide ratio of about 30-to-1, meaning that for every foot of altitude you can glide 30 feet forward. From our 3,000-foot tow we can glide nearly 20 miles, and flights last from about 25 minutes on no-lift days, to several hours when thermals are around (a thermal is a column of rising air caused by sunlight heating the ground). Flights as long as five to seven hours are possible.
The glider is initially towed behind a powered airplane to a height of 3,000 feet. Then we release the tow-rope with the pull of a handle. After releasing, we search for thermals to prolong our flight. The gliders have a variometer to tell us when we’re in rising air, and once a thermal is found, it is quite an art to circle inside it and gain altitude. Watch a hawk circle and gain height on a hot day — now they know how to do it right!
Time to head to the airport,” says Hagen from the back. “OK,” I reply, banking us toward home. We plan to be back at the airport at “circuit height” (1,000 feet above ground). It would be a tad inconvenient to have to “walk back” if we misjudged this and landed short.
“Have you landed before?” asks Hagen, since I’m new to the club.
“Oh, a couple of times.” I started flying last year and have seven flights in total, including two landings.
“Chipman traffic, Mike-Juliette-Sierra is downwind runway 10,” Hagen announces over the radio. I bank right and fly parallel to the runway. I can clearly see the green grass runway below, on the left, with several gliders lined up ready for takeoff. There is also one lonely electric wheelchair sitting vacant beside the runway, its usual occupant in no hurry to return.
At 500 feet I bank left, and then shortly after, I bank left again to turn onto final approach.
“Mike-Juliette-Sierra on final runway 10.”
The Puchacz has spoilers — little fences that pop up on the top and bottom of the wings — that act like brakes in the air. Gliders can come down very steeply with these out, and Hagen deploys them as necessary to make sure we don’t overshoot the runway.
I continue to fly us down, keeping lined up with the runway, and just as the ground appears to flatten, I pull back on the stick, or “round out.” We zoom along at 50 mph a few feet above the ground. Then as we lose speed, the glider settles and we hear the main wheel skimming the grass. We’re back on terra firma. Soon we roll to a stop and the right wing dips silently to the ground.
“Good job!” says Hagen, opening the canopy to jump out and help tow us back to the takeoff position. Conrad, a club member, drives up in the Kubota to pull the glider off the runway.
“Want to go again?” hollers Hagen as they’re hooking up the rope to the Kubota.
“I’m game if you are!”
Later, after flight number two, Conrad asks with a mischievous grin, “Are you ever going to get out of that thing?” This day I will be fortunate to get four flights in.
“Heck no,” I say. “We put contact-cement on the seat before they dropped me in. Want to trade a glider for a wheelchair?”
“You might have trouble getting that thing in the kitchen with the wings on.”
Gliding is a surprisingly affordable activity. Many clubs run on a volunteer basis, keeping costs down. Flights including 3,000-foot tow and instructor cost as little as three for $200 for non-members, and less for members. People of all abilities can enjoy gliding, and if you want to just sit back and enjoy the spectacular view, the volunteer instructor will gladly do the flying. Many clubs also have campgrounds at their airports, allowing inexpensive extended stays. There are gliding clubs all across North America, many of which are equipped with hand-controlled gliders and lifts to enable wheelchair users to participate in this activity.
A great way to get a jump-start on gliding in the comfort of your own home is to try a very realistic gliding-simulator called Condor. It is downloadable at www.condorsoaring.com and can be flown standalone or online with other pilots. Many of the gliding clubs host races online in winter months, and I’ve heard instructors say that the simulator pilots can sometimes jump into real gliders and fly.
For exciting, out-of-the-ordinary recreation that requires very little physical strength, with great people to meet, I encourage wheelchair users to look up a local gliding club. They’re more than happy to do whatever it takes to get you into a glider.
I must give thanks to my wife, family, and friends who make this all possible. There are countless hours of scheming (or is it dreaming?), creating adaptations, disrupting schedules, and traveling to make it all come together. Then when the flying day is done, club members must open the beer fridge. Spouses are required to patiently sit and listen and appear interested, with appropriate head nods, to obsessed pilots like myself who are obligated to babble on and on about flying (I think this is in the club by-laws).
Kary Wright lives with his wife and two children in Bashaw, Alberta, Canada. He is a freelance writer who loves flying, camping, hunting, fishing, and a glass of red with his wife by the campfire.
|Getting StartedWhat time of the year do gliders fly? The best soaring is usually May-July, but ask local pilots as it varies with location. Mountainous terrain provides lift when wind blows up a slope, or a wave downwind from a mountain range. In Western Canada our flying season is about May to October, depending on snow. Farther south the flying season is longer, even year-round.How much does it cost to fly?If you join a club and do a lot of flying during the summer, expect to spend between $1,000 and $2,000. If you just want a couple of flights, expect to pay $65 to $100 per flight.Where are the glider clubs and how do you find them? There are several soaring clubs listed at www.tinyurl/glideclubs. In Canada there are a number of clubs equipped to handle people with disabilities listed on www.freedomswings.ca (patterned on Freedom’s Wings International, based in Pennsylvania). An Internet search will locate more clubs near your area. While most are very accommodating, it’s best to inquire about accessibility.
Do you use a special cushion to prevent pressure sores? There is a removable cushion on the seat. You can sit on a taller one if you like, as long as you remain low enough to close the canopy. Once inside the cockpit, you are in a reclined position, which reduces the chance of pressure sores.
Are some times more dangerous than others? Weather and other aircraft are the biggest concerns. Your instructor will help with this, but wind speed and visibility are important factors. Too much wind will require good management to make sure that you can get back to the airport. Also, gliders aren’t equipped for instrument flying, so staying out of clouds is important. Gliders often fly in close proximity to each other. It is very important to keep your head “on swivel” to prevent collisions.
How much does a glider cost? A new glider equipped with hand controls costs about $135,000 to $165,000. There are older, less expensive models (I’ve seen them as low as $6,000) but the hand controls would be expensive and probably difficult to locate. It is far less expensive to join a club that is equipped, and they will have the facilities to launch and train you. This might be one of those times when it’s unwise to look for bargains.
Can you rent hand controls? I don’t know of any hand controls for rent yet, but an Internet search may reveal some when available. However, the main controls (ailerons and elevators) are on a control stick conveniently located between your knees when seated in the glider. The only part not hand-controlled is the rudder, and you can fly fine without controlling this (it gives your instructor something to do). Hand-control equipped gliders simply have a second stick for the rudder.
Is a glider pilot’s license required? You can fly with a licensed instructor without being licensed yourself. If you wish to fly solo, you will need to pass a pilot’s medical and start training, which is possible for paraplegics and some quadriplegics. I fly using a special cuff to hold the stick, and I feel that solo flying would be too dangerous for me, as becoming detached from the stick would be devastating. Also, it is fun to fly with an instructor along, and they don’t charge for it! This is a very social activity.
What are the requirements if I choose to get a glider pilot’s license?
In the United States:
• You must pass a medical examination;
• Be 16 years of age or older;
• Must have logged at least 10 hours of glider flight time (flight time must include at least 20 total glider flights);
• Must have two hours of solo flight time in a glider;
• Must have passed the FAA written examination;
• Must have passed the flight exam with an FAA examiner.