On the morning of December 26, 1977 I sustained a spinal cord injury in the crash of a small, private aircraft at New Haven Airport in Connecticut. Flying had been a passion in my life. After college I had served a five-year tour in the Navy as a carrier pilot. However, since sustaining my spinal cord injury, my flying had languished.
All that changed in May of 1998 when my friend Bill Murphy invited me to go soaring. Bill and I had met a few years earlier while competing in a sailing regatta for persons with disabilities. His excitement about soaring was contagious and convinced me to accept his invitation to go for a flight.
Bill is a member of Freedom's Wings International, a not-for-profit soaring club which provides soaring opportunities for persons with disabilities. Freedom's Wings owns two Grob 103 two place gliders which are based at VanSant Airport - a beautiful grass field in eastern Pennsylvania just across the Delaware River from Frenchtown, New Jersey.
The spring day was sunny with clear blue skies. When I arrived at the airfield at 11:00 a.m., the aircraft were already on the flight line. With a sleek fuselage and a fifty-seven foot wingspan, the glider appeared graceful and ready to fly. After the long drive from Connecticut, so was I!
Bob Kessler, an instructor and long time member of Freedom's Wings greeted me and briefed me on the aircraft, which had already been preflighted. I was assisted from my wheelchair into the front seat by one of the club's many volunteers and familiarized with the controls and the instruments. As we strapped in, Bob pointed out the wisps of cumulus clouds starting to form … a promise of good soaring. The tow plane taxied up and while other members helped us with the hookup, Bob performed the final take off checks. One moment we were rolling smoothly down the lush green runway and the next moment we were airborne. At 1500 feet Bob let me fly the tow. Immediately the aircraft began to waggle. Flying a glider was not as easy as Bob made it look. We released at 3000 feet and headed south toward some building clouds. The view of the countryside and of the Delaware River was spectacular. Thermaling up to 4000 feet, we headed west with Bob pointing out suitable alternate landing fields.
Turns proved to be as challenging as the tow. I tended to over-control the ailerons and under control the rudder which was operated with a hand control … forward for left rudder, aft for right rudder. I was amazed as Bob located a thermal and smoothly turned to seek and maintain its center. This was the art of soaring.
Nearly three hours later we entered the pattern at VanSant. With precise air speed control and fluid use of the spoilers, Bob guided us in to a gentle landing. What an exhilarating flight. I could not wait to get airborne again.
What I remember most about that day was that it was great fun. I enjoyed the soaring and also the camaraderie of the pilots of Freedom's Wings who had mastered soaring in spite of their disabilities. They inspired and encouraged me to return. Over the next several months I did so many times and on August 24, 1999 earned my glider rating. As these winter days drag drearily along, I wistfully reminisce of those sunny days soaring with Freedom's Wings and count the days until spring.