(This is part of the Brejcha Personal and Disability Resource Site, and after reading this page you can Click here for a Menu . But for now, Welcome to a couple of my articles:
These articles grew out of an incredible experience I had, courtesy of Freedom's Wings International (check out their site for loads of therapeutic fun and resources). The first article below, "From Wheelchair to Sailplane", was originally published as a photo-illustrated feature article in the May/June 1993 issue of Sports 'N Spokes magazine, a must-have subscription for any physically active individuals with disabilities. The picture on my home page was the title page photo for this first article, and there is a link to the other photos from the article at the bottom of this page. The article that follows, "Taking Off", is about my second flight, and it ran as the "Exit Ramp" essay for the May 1993 issue of New Jersey Monthly, and was reprinted in the July 1996 issue of Enabling Pennsylvanians (apparently out business ) and the Summer 1998 issue of PALAESTRA magazine.
Copyright 1993: F. Alexander Brejcha
As I fight my wheelchair across the dense grass of Van Sant Airport's small airfield, I realize that fall is almost here. It is a perfect day to go flying. The sun is bright, the sky clear, and the lingering morning crispness in the air is refreshing. I move on towards the graceful form of the tiny, 880 pound aerobatic glider that is waiting for me. It is lying there like a wounded bird, listing to one side with its canopy open, calling to me. Fifty-seven feet from wing-tip to wing-tip, one wing reaches hungrily for the sky as the other touches the ground, protected only by a tiny wheel underneath. This bird belongs up in the air among the clouds, not down here. I reach the plane and stroke it lightly. Already warming up from the sun overhead, the fiberglass body feels almost alive. "Freedom's Wings" is stencilled on the side of the plane under the open cockpit canopy. How appropriate.
I bend over the open cockpit of the Grob 103A, looking at the cramped space I will soon occupy, sitting flat on a firm cushion. As the student and passenger, I will sit in the front one of the two identically equipped seats. Just as in the pilot's position, a jammed instrument-pod faces the seat-back. It holds a bubble-level, called a slip and skid indicator, a compass, an altimeter, an airspeed indicator, and twin variometers to measure the amount of lift under the wings. One of the latter is manual, and the other -- turned off while on the ground and during tow -- is electric. Below all this, a yellow knob dangles from a string. When pulled, it will disconnect us from the tow line of the small power plane that will take us up to 2,000 feet before leaving us to our exploration of the sky. At the moment, a line is connected to a car parked in front of the glider, presumably to pull it to where the tow-plane will hook up.
Behind the tow line release, right in front of the seat, is a joystick which controls the ailerons and the elevator, while next to it, a push-pull handle is connected to the rudder -- rear for right and front for left. Just to the left of the rudder is another lever which does double duty. In the air, it raises a spoiler on the trailing edge of the wing which acts as an air-brake, and while on the ground, it controls the brake for the main body wheel.
All controls are right there to allow a pilot, unable to use his or her legs, to maneuver this fragile flying beauty. It is owned by Freedom's Wings International of Scotch Plains, New Jersey. The non-profit organization also leases two other hand control- equipped gliders for students and soarers with disabilities.
To make these planes even more intriguing, the instructor's positions are also equipped with hand controls, because some of the instructors also have disabilities.
An inspiring fact, that last bit.
A surge of gratitude goes out to a friend and fellow science fiction author who had first let me know about Freedom's Wings International. She had sent me an old article on the organization, and I had read in amazement about its quadriplegic president, Raymond D. Temchus, Jr. who, in 1988, qualified as the nation's first FAA certified flight instructor for gliders, and who is one of the few commercially licensed glider pilot with disabilities. After reading that, it had been a given fact that I would try out their flight training program.
This program was started twelve years ago by Irving Soble and his wife Mary D'Angelo-Soble. Both are pilots and share the love of flying. He flies 767's for United Airlines, and she is a member of the 99's, an international organization of female pilots founded by Amelia Earhart. The idea for Freedom's Wings International grew out of seeing a wheelchair-using woman's reactions to a glider at an aviation show where the Sobles were demonstrating the planes.
Fruitless inquiries into finding a flight-training program for individuals with disabilities prompted such a strong response from individuals wanting to fly, that early instructional flights were held in regular gliders. These flights were limited, though, in that only partial control by the student was possible. It took six years, but Ray Temchus and the previous president of Freedom's Wings International, Denny McMann, finally found Grob, the company that converted their training gliders to equip them with full hand controls.
One of which is the plane I am about to board.
For me, this will just be an orientation flight, but I will be back for lessons. Like many others before me, some from as far away as Alaska and Ireland, I want to see the day when I will guide this bird on a flight by myself. The first step is anywhere from twenty to fifty flights -- it all depends on the student -- concurrent with FAA-approved ground training, and then a written exam at an FAA center, either before or after soloing. The instructor decides when the student is ready to solo. Then, after more solo flights for practice, the final step is a flight with an FAA inspector in order to qualify for a glider-pilot's license. It will take some time before I can afford it, but I do want to fly alone, and eventually, go for my license. I don't know how long it will take, because previous students have been licensed in as little as two weeks, or taking a whole season. It all depends on the frequency of flights, and the aptitude of the student.
At least when it comes to budget, I'll have an advantage over non-disabled students. Freedom's Wings International is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization supported by corporate and private donations, and students with disabilities only have to pay a yearly membership fee of $75.00 to Freedom's Wings International, a $45.00 yearly membership in the Soaring Society of America, and a tow-fee of around $25.00 per flight. True, even the nominal tow fees add up over the number of flights necessary to solo and get certified, but a limited number of scholarships are available for students who are unable to afford the tow-fees.
But no matter how fast I progress in my training, it is a thrill to know that any time from April to November, I can come here to Van Sant Airport for an occasional unfettered foray into the sky. It's a bit of a drive from my home in a Philadelphia suburb, but it's worth it. Right on the other side of the river from New Jersey in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, this tiny airport sees a regular stream of soarers with disabilities. Just this one glider I am about to take my first ride in, made around four hundred flights last year.
I envy those soarers and feel almost dizzy with anticipation. Now I will get my chance, and it will be a total liberation for me.
* * *
"Are you ready?" Ben asks from behind.
Benjamin Emge, the vice-president of Freedom's Wings International, will be my guide to the sky. One of the instructors, he has been a pilot for around fifty years and has been soaring for fifteen. I feel a little better knowing in whose hands I will be. Even though a sailplane ride is undoubtedly safer than my daily commute on the Schuylkill expressway, I can't deny being a little nervous. A powered airplane has an engine, a hot-air balloon has just that -- and its own burner to make more lift -- but a sailplane has only the skill of its pilot, the vagaries of wind, and elusive, invisible thermals to keep it aloft.
But I guess that I am ready, even if I am not looking forward to the actual getting in and out of the glider.
Ben pulls out a cushion to drape over the lip of the cockpit, and with a bit of difficulty because of the height difference, I transfer up onto the narrow rim. Then it's a matter of a controlled fall down into the seat which is close to the ground. I feel like a total fool as I lie there, my legs sprawling up in the air, but Ben matter-of-factly grabs one leg at a time and stuffs it in on either side of the instrument cluster so that I am sitting stretched out at a right angle in the belly of the glider. He has obviously done this before.
Then I get a surprise as he informs me he is going to tow me over to where the plane will pick us up.
"There's a bit of a down grade, so if the tow line gets slack, just pull on the brake there to slow down," he cheerfully instructs me.
The next thing I know, I'm sealed in and he is heading for his car. The tow over to our launch site is a little nerve-wracking as the glider drifts to the right -- awfully close to another plane -- but fortunately the brake also pulls me left and safely clear of the other glider. Then Ben signals me to disconnect and I pull the release, feeling foolishly like a soaring veteran. Another man joins us as I open the canopy, and together with Ben he turns the glider around so that I am looking down the grassy runway.
The tow plane has just landed, and is turning its back on us so Ben can grab the tow line to link us up. Then it's his turn to climb in, and I seal the canopy and swallow. It's time.
With a slight jerk, we're off. We pick up speed quickly and, with a dizzying sway, are off the ground in short order... up... up, and I check out the altimeter. 2,000 feet comes quickly, and with a small clunk, we are freed from the disappearing tow plane.
As my M.S. also affects my inner ear, my first reaction on take-off had been to grip the sides of the cockpit tightly as we swooped skywards and around to leave the tow-plane. But now, as my head begins to settle down a little, I relax and I am suddenly aware of the silence. True, the sound of the wind rushing past is noisier than expected, but after a while I am no longer aware of it, and I realize that THIS is flying. Unfettered and alone in the sky, we seem to hang silently suspended over a miniature world. It is crystal clear up here. Only a few feathery clouds dot the sky around us, and I stare around and down in fascination. It is so beautiful!
I start keeping an eye on the variometer and the altimeter as Ben puts us into a steep banking turn and I hold on. Time to think like a bird.
Right on cue, Ben speaks up.
"There's a hawk," he points out, and tells me how they are a perfect sign of a thermal because they like soaring, too. And as we spiral after the bird, I check the variometer and see what he meant: the gauge, which is calibrated from negative to positive five, climbs from zero to three. Positive numbers mean lift, and as we enter the thermal, the altimeter shows us rising up like the hawk -- who has disappeared. Perhaps it couldn't handle the competition?
We move from thermal to thermal, gradually gaining altitude and I stare around, feeling like a little kid.
"There's our winter thermal," Ben calls out and points over my shoulder to a junk yard in the distance. I realize that it makes sense. All the metal picks up the heat from the sun and it would make for a reliable thermal.
"How can you spot thermals otherwise?" I wonder. "I mean, if you don't see a handy soaring bird?"
"Open fields are good," he explains. "Plowed fields, especially. Forests are no good, and neither are lakes."
This makes sense, and I look over towards Lake Nockamixon with a new eye.
"The wind also makes a different noise when you enter a thermal," he continues. "But that's not always reliable. Your best bet is to keep an eye on your instruments."
And develop some instincts, I add mentally, admiring the relaxed ease with which he swoops to catch the rising air to add to our altitude. We're at 3,500 feet now. We have gained 1,500 feet in altitude without any engine to boost us up.
"How long can you stay up?" I ask.
"All day, if you want."
I am beginning to get light-headed in a new way. This is wonderful! I lean from side to side to look down at the beautiful countryside spread out below us. This is a rural area and everywhere I turn there is green, in the most amazing patterns of clearing and growth. Tiny houses are scattered below, connected by winding model-like roadways. I spot another small airport with only a few airplanes and realize that one needs to be alert up here, because we have no radar and no radio. Granted, the traffic up here is light, but I do see one plane in the distance, descending towards Van Sant. Everything is visual and based on courtesy. Ben has told me that it is important to keep to the standard left hand, rectangular landing pattern that is observed at the airport so that pilots can keep track of their situation. While gliders do have the right of way, like sail boats have right-of-way over ocean liners, it doesn't do to push that too much, for obvious reasons.
Ben banks again, and we head off towards Lake Nockamixon for a closer look, dropping down a bit as we go along. Still, I almost feel like I'm soaring up higher as we lose altitude. It is so exhilarating to be up here.
From the lake, with its marina and spillway, we move towards the field again, picking up some altitude as Ben asks: "Have you ever been weightless?"
I shake my head, and I can almost feel Ben smile as he goes into a dive to pick up speed, and then pulls up. In moments, I see the airspeed indicator drop towards its stall speed of around thirty-five to forty knots, and for a moment we just hang and drop.
Just briefly, but it's a definite first... another first, for me. I feel myself laugh as I try to get my bearings again. This is wilder and better than an amusement park ride! Certainly more peaceful. We settle into a gentle turn so I can get another good look around.
"Well," Ben interrupts my reverie all too soon. "I think it's time we head back."
I realize we've been up for almost forty-five minutes. We bank right and turn towards the airport approaching in a leisurely left-hand pattern, just as Ben described. Lower and lower we drop, and as we swing around for our final approach, Ben pulls the air brake, and I see a flat bar rise up from the wing's trailing edge to slow us. From 135 knots (155 m.p.h) at our maximum speed, to our near stall, and now dropping gradually to around sixty knots as we sink closer and closer to the field, we've covered an amazing range of speeds for a plane with no motive power of its own.
It gives me a whole new appreciation of these graceful gliders.
With an amazingly gentle bump, we hit the grass and slow down rapidly as Ben plays the brake and ailerons. We stop, and I throw open the canopy a little shakily -- I'll admit it. It's been quite an experience. For a moment I just sit there, enjoying the cool, open air. The sun had become quite hot, burning through the canopy while we were up. Ben climbs out, looking as if he understands just how I feel. And I'm sure he does. How many times has he done a first flight like this? Hundreds of times, I realize.
He knows how I feel.
Only one thing spoils this incredible experience as I get lifted out of the plane and deposited back into my wheelchair: the effect of the flight on my inner ear. I am beginning to doubt if I will ever be able to safely solo. Driving my van is one thing, as the motion is all in two dimensions. I have absolutely no problems with that. But the motions of the tow, and the steep banking and tight turns necessary to stay within the thermals, had me holding on for stability. I didn't get nauseous, as a friend of mine did on her only glider flight, but I had definitely felt insecure in my seat, despite the cramped quarters.
Of course, this was just my first flight. Will I go back?
Damn right I will!
Even if I can never solo but have to fly with another pilot as a back-up, I want to at least be up there and truly know that I can fly a plane like this. I want to squeeze myself into that cramped and uncomfortable seat again and let myself get spun around and disoriented... and maybe after more exposure, it won't be so bad.
I want to head up there for another flight!
Thank you, Ray, and Freedom's Wings International. And thank you, Ben!
* * *
For information on how to become part of this unique program, write to:
Freedom's Wings International, 1832 Lake Avenue, Scotch Plains, NJ 07076
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Note: To see see the other four pictures which accompanied the above article (the home page picture was on the title page), I added a link to it above the menu link at the bottom of this page. Warning: there are four JPEG images on that page and it will take some time to load, though I reduced the size of the pictures to speed up the transfer. Total file size is around 60K.
Copyright 1993: F. Alexander Brejcha
We are more than 2,000 feet up in the air, floating silently over the green and sunlit world that stretches out below us. The only sound is the rushing wind outside the glider, but by now I don't even hear that. Up and to our right, a small form twists to the side, indignant over our invasion of its airspace.
"There's another hawk," Ben Emgee, the pilot, points out from behind me. "Remember what I said last time. They're our thermal guides."
Emgee is a trustee for Freedom's Wings International, Inc., the non-profit organization based in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, that has liberated me from the ground. During our first flight, he had told me how soaring birds ar a perfect sign of the rising air currents, called thermals, that hawks and glider pilots use to gain altitude. As we spiral after the bird in a sharp turn that has me holding on tightly, the variometer -- which measures air pressure under the plane and indicates lift -- suddenly gives a positive reading to show the lift of a thermal. I see from reading the altimeter that we are climbing.
After almost eight years in a wheelchair, I am free!
It's a heady feeling. Thirteen years ago, rapidly progressing Multiple Sclerosis (M.S.) forced my life in a new direction. Within five years I went from ambulatory to being confined to a wheelchair. I know: "Confined" is not a politically correct expression. Too bad. It happens to be the way I often feel. I am fortunate that my MS has been stable for the past six years and that I can live alone and take care of myself, but I am so tired of looking up at the world from my wheelchair.
Whenever I see horseback riders in the park near my apartment, I ache to be mounted again. And I often see hot air balloons floating leisurely overhead. They always seem to be taunting me because I am stuck down on the ground in a 180-pound motorized wheelchair with all the grace and free spirit of a Mack truck.
No more, thanks to Freedom's Wings International. I can now fly rings around those hot-air soarers. The converted glider, or sailplane, around me has two positions in the nose, one in front of the other, each with full instrumentation and hand controls to allow a pilot who is unable to use his or her legs to maneuver the plane unhindered. And I can come to Van Sant airport in Bucks county, Pennsylvania from April to November, along with students from as far away as Alaska and Ireland, to receive free flights and lessons. I am just one among many who are enjoying this. The sailplane I am riding in made over 400 flights last year. Our role model is the organization's president, Raymond D. Temchus, Jr. In 1988, he qualified as the nation's first FAA-certified quadriplegic flight instructor for sailplanes, and he is one of the country's few commercially licensed sailplane pilots with disabilities.
My flight-mate, Ben, has been flying for almost fifty years, fifteen of them in sailplanes. I admire the practiced ease with which he swoops to catch rising air, adding to our altitude. We're at 3,500 feet, having gained 1,500 feet without an engine.
"Do you want to take the controls this time?" he asks unexpectedly. I swallow. This is only my second flight, and the prospects of trying to pilot the plane is daunting. I had no idea that there was so much to keep track of. But a pro -- who has a strong sense of self-preservation and plenty of skill -- is sitting behind me, so I relax.
"Sure. Why not?" I curl my right hand around the control stick and my left around the rudder lever. My eyes flash from the yaw-string that is taped to the canopy over me (it shows the wind flow) to the various instruments, and finally to the horizon. Ben has told me to keep a slice of the horizon in view between the canopy and the sky to let me know that I am level. Too much horizon and I am losing altitude; too little and I am climbing, at risk of stalling as my airspeed drops. I also have to watch my airspeed gauge. If we are flying at less than 35 to 40 knots, we will stall.
I feel a little overwhelmed this first time, especially when I try my hand at turning and feel the plane start to stall. Ben chuckles and puts us back on an even keel as I realize I definitely need more practice. Level flight comes pretty easily, but turning is another matter. Not at all as easy as driving my hand control-equipped van.
As Ben hands control back to me, I continue to gain respect for him -- and for that vanished hawk who is probably soaring out of sight somewhere above us, trying not to laugh at my clumsy attempts to fly. After a few more fumbling tries at turning I relinquish control, because a friend on the ground is waiting for her turn to soar -- as long as she sees me come down safely.
As we circle around and drop towards the field, I know that I will keep coming back. During these flights I leave more than my wheelchair on the ground below. I leave all sense of disability behind. For a while I can soar, more than physically, in a world few "able-bodied" people ever get a chance to explore.
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