as published in Abilities Magazine
by Kary Wright
The beautiful blue water of the Oldman Dam fills the windscreen, as we head South-East. To the left is the rolling Porcupine Hills, and on the right the Rocky Mountains shine in the sunlight, forming a chain that extends down into Montana. It's a warm July day and I'm soaking up the view.
“Let's turn downwind,”says Phil Stade from the back seat of the two-seat high performance glider. I move the stick to the right and the glider gently banks. As the Livingstone Range comes into view to the West I'm once-again awestruck by this incredible mountain scenery. I fly the glider parallel to the runway, setting us up for a landing.
Looking out the left side I can clearly see other gliders lined up for takeoff, many RV's, and automobiles. There is also one lonely vacant electric wheelchair, experiencing the rejection of it's owner heading off to the clouds in a new ride. The feeling of freedom while controlling an aircraft is overwhelming, and here on my sixth flight might be my chance to perform my first landing. We're flying in the picturesque mountains of Southern Alberta, at the week-long Cowley Gliding camp. Camping is free, the folks are great, the scenery is second-to-none and it is surprisingly affordable! They even have the equipment to handle us wheelchair users!
Flying gliders has in the last few years become very accessible. I'm a c5/c6 quadriplegic and have little difficulty controlling the glider. It doesn't require much physical strength to move the stick, only some ingenuity to build a cuff to grip it. The CuNim Gliding Club in Black Diamond, Alberta has a glider with a hand-controlled stick and rudder, allowing people with disabilities full control. The Edmonton Soaring Club has a hand-controlled glider on order for the 2012 season, and both clubs have specially-designed lifts to make transfers into the gliders easy! Flights cost as little as $67 each (3 flights for $200 in Edmonton, even less if you become a member) including tow-plane and instructor, and may last from 20 minutes to hours, depending on lift. If you can manipulate the controls, the instructor will gladly let you, and if not you can just sit back and enjoy the ride! People of all abilities can enjoy this sport. On the Internet you can find clubs affiliated with Freedom's Wings across the country, all of which are accessible and when you visit them your first flight is free! The Alberta groups are testing their new Roman's Design Winch, which will dramatically reduce flight costs, and it is said a winch launch is more fun than any carnival ride!
“As the runway falls behind us, start our 30 degree angle towards the base leg,”instructs Phil, a volunteer instructor, Executive Director of the Alberta Soaring Council, and driving force behind enabling pilots-with-disabilities.
“Ok, turn base now and watch the runway.”
I roll the ship left and head south, watching the runway out the left side.
“Turn onto final at your discretion, and let me know if we'll make the runway,” says Phil from the back seat.
I once again roll left and line up with the runway. “Yes we'll make it,”I say as it is evident to me that we have lots of height. Phil adds about half spoiler to bring us down quicker, as my paws are busy on the stick and rudder.
I continue flying straight ahead. As we near the threshold, the runway seems to flatten out. “Pull back ... hold it off ... hold it off ... hold it off,” is heard from the back seat.
We zoom past gliders, automobiles and that forlorn-looking wheelchair at only a few feet above the ground. I'm holding us in the air while bleeding off speed by pulling harder and harder on the stick. Then the sound of the tail-wheel skimming the grass is heard just before the main wheel touches. We're earth-bound again and quickly slow to a stop.
“You did it!”comes a cheer from the back. “You sir, just did your complete first landing!”
“Awesome!”I reply. “Now that is more fun!” referring to this being my first flight where I did virtually all of the flying.
“You did the complete take-off, most of the tow, AND the landing!” says Phil.
I sit still in the cockpit, taking in the sights of the instrument panel, the wings, and the gorgeous scenery outside. It was only about a 25 minute flight this time, but the glider feels like an old friend. I don't want it to end, and certainly do not want to get back into my wheelchair. Here in the glider I'm a “pilot”, no different than any other pilot, totally indiscernible while in the air. You can watch 5 gliders circling around and not be able to tell which one has a person with a disability at the controls. On the ground, I'm the guy in the wheelchair, “and ... oh yah ... he can fly”.
The fun doesn't stop in winter months either, many in the gliding community keep their skills sharp flying a very realistic computer gliding-simulator called Condor (down-loadable for about $70). Clubs fly weekly races online in cold months, and you can even see and talk to the other pilots! I've heard instructors say that the computer simulator pilots have a huge advantage when it comes to learning to fly, it is that realistic! It is a great and fun way to learn to soar!
Most glider clubs are volunteer non-profit operations, hence the strong bonds between members. Many clubs are getting on board and asking what it takes to help more people of all abilities to learn to fly. If you want a surprisingly affordable and thrilling sport, that is quite unique, with great people to meet (and even something that few able-bodied people try), check out your local gliding club. You'll find that it actually takes very little physical movement and strength to fly a glider, a perfect hobby for us!
Also Look Up:
Freedom's Wings www.freedomswings.ca
Affiliated Soaring Clubs:
Calgary CuNim Gliding Club http://cunim.org/
Edmonton Soaring Club http://www.edmontonsoaringclub.com/