Wheelchair to 500 feet

by George Ransome now Chairman of Flyability

George after his solo
George after his solo

I’m sat on a plane from Alicante to Southampton scribbling notes on a sick bag. I want to tell the tale about going solo on a hanglider.

But first some history. I have Fredreich’s Ataxia (a condition that affects your balance and coordination). When I was sixteen I was due to have an operation to correct curvature of the spine (scoliosis) and my aunt (yes she is to blame for the whole thing!) brought me a pleasure flight at Bournemouth International in a single engine Cessna 152?

That was it – I had the flying bug!

I started flying with the APT (Aviation for Paraplegics and Tetraplegics, (http://www.disabledflying.org) thanks to a grant. I flew Shadow microlights – a very posh looking, enclosed canopy, aircraft. I flew these from 95 to 96 and wasn’t far off solo when I had some problems with my ECG. The CAA took my medical certificate away and although the medical officer got it reinstated for me (severely reduced – not allowing passengers) I didn’t go back to it. Something wasn’t right – it wasn’t pure flight in my mind. An engine is too easy.

In ’98 I trawled the BHPA website looking for a hang gliding school near to Dorset. I found the Wiltshire hg and pg school and dragged my girlfriend to a taster day. It was very cold and damp and I had forgotten to bring food! We shared a packet of cheese and onion crisps left over from work packed lunch. I only had one wheelchair at that point and it was set up for smooth floors (not stubbly fields) so my girlfriend had to drag my wheelchair again and again up the side of the small hill. A long and tiring day but I was hooked – this was the way to fly that relied on skill, my own skill, no clumsy engine! Like all free flight, the attitude of the people doing it really astounded me; they are all willing to help.

So set myself up with an old farming quad and through a Flyability Scholarship grant flew with Hamish and dear old Mike (my strongest memory of Mike is stood in the ‘A’ frame flying a stubby down the hill) for a while. But after a few summers of spending most weekends trying to get time in the air I got really disillusioned with the British weather. We would get up at 6AM only to get told it wasn’t flyable; when this was an accurate assesment we were already out of Dorset making it to Marlborough before it got to thermic.

A friend of mine, Steve Varden told me about Wallaby ranch in Florida (http://www.wallaby.com/). I had never heard of the place. Steve runs Flyability, the disabled part of BHPA and is someone I look up to for having the right attitude. Even though he has Cerebral Palsy, he doesn’t consider himself disabled.

I must have talked about it non-stop at work because without my knowledge Jim Chapman MD of Triangle Computers was conspiring to send me to Wallaby. In June 2000 my work (Triangle Computers http://www.triangle-group.com/) said “Right, you’re going to Wallaby” fantasctic trip!

Greg Harrington was my carer for the trip (I use the term carer loosely after dropping me in a lake with my boots on, then subjected me to a couple of hours in the back of a floatplane with a headset that didn’t work, bouncing in and out of Floridian lakes). I had never seen the aerotow but what a fantastic idea, no dragging a glider up hills! A dragonfly (ultralight) tows your tandem glider to 3000 ft + then you have the time to practise things you would never have a chance of doing on hills. When I came home my girlfriend and I planned to go to Florida in September 2000 (managing to be out of the country for the duration of the Fuel Crisis!) and we managed to pop in to Wallaby again between theme parks. I think I got about 15 to 30 flights in but they were still reluctant to send me up solo. I didn’t think I would ever be able to master aerotow and I couldn’t find anywhere in the UK to carry on learning.

I had seen these paragliders and the speed people seemed to pick this up, so decided to give it a go.

I got in touch with a local teacher, Andrew Pearce at Flying Frenzy (http://www.flyingfrenzy.com/) a nice, small school. I had to borrow the Swanton Buggy from Flyability. I’d had a flight one year back at the Festival of Free Flight when it was in Wroughton airfield. It seemed fine with someone else steering and stood on the back. But when I was on my own I could not make the Swanton Buggy weightshift and on take off it Violently swung around. Andrew’s teaching was very good but I just couldn’t get into the whole float thing.during my many none precise landings I managed to put it into a tree (the only one in the field!) and many other things. At 8 one morning I got it totally wrong, flipped the buggy, and managed to damage my finger. Still, I flew for the rest of the day, had a McDonalds for dinner and then at 8PM went to casualty because it swelled up so much.

After an operation to straighten my (broken) finger the flying was on hold for a year (as the docs advised). I started looking into designing my own custom buggy, to see if I could find something less cumbersome and easier to control than the Swanton. Despite buying a kite buggy and playing around with designs it didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I kept reading Skywings though and watching the BHPA website for local schools. In 2004 I fired off an email to a place called Airways (http://www.airways-airsports.com/). Their website said they taught aerotow (music to my ears) and everything else un-powered as well as powered flight, but a calendar mix-up meant I couldn’t fly that year. In early 05 I mailed Airways again about coming up at Easter.

At Easter 2005 I went to the best place I think I have been so far for flying the (airways airpark), its a long trek from dorset (especially towing a quad), but well worth it. Everyone was talkative and that made others come out of their shells. There is an air of magic (as it says on the site they produce pilots).

When we pulled up to Airways I opened the car door and was waiting for my girlfriend to bring round my wheelchair when someone came out of the clubhouse. It was Judy Leden (world record holder in everything free flying related!). She said “I’m going to be your instructor” to which I muttered “You’re my hero” but she didn’t hear that so shhh don’t tell her!

When I got into the pod harness for my first aerotow in over 4 years, and with the help of a lot of lifters got ‘hung up’ below the hg tandem wing, it just felt right as if I was home. My wallet didn’t see it in the same way!

Over the next week I learnt tonnes and Judy (a very good and thorough teacher – like when you have a teacher at school who tells you things and they just stick!) didn’t see a problem with going solo. On the tow up I was just doing pitch. Because I have little or no balance I have to keep the tug on the horizon manually through visual stimuli (so I can’t fly when no horizon!), and my landing needed work. I was trying to get as much airtime as possible, but I was thwarted again by the British weather! I left Airways on a good note, hoping to go up on the August bank holiday. Doing all of this new work meant my energy got zapped and after 2/3 flight I was a wheeling zombie

In August (with help of another Flyability grant) I went back to Airways and on the Saturday flew 4 flights with Judy and after dusting off a tiny bit of rust was able to fly at the same level as I was before. I was given the roll on the tow and by looking at the position of the tow line was able to halt the meandering off line (wings on the horizon weren’t exact enough to do this) so I was gung ho for my solo. I felt so much better about towing like it wasn’t to be feared you could enjoy the tow up as well as the trip down!

When the Sunday and Monday were not flyable Judy suggested I might try Ontur in Spain, which I got full agreement on from my girfriend. So from end of August ensued the most frantic phone calls emails (mostly in Spanish – thank you to Rita, my Spanish translator) to find us a place to stay near Ontur suitable for a wheelchair.

Finally, a place was found very near to the airfield and we flew out to Ontur. The bungalow was lovely and the Spanish people were very friendly but the best thing (for me) was the weather. You fly early when the air is very calm but warm, during the day you have a short siesta then fly in the afternoon. This was excellent for me I could learn at a very fast rate. In the evenings we’d go out with everyone which made us feel so much more part of the group, and during the day I loved watching the experienced pilots having fun in the thermals, specially Shaun and Steve ‘the only time is air time’ Wilkes (tug pilot) doing synchronised flying, U2 (HG) and Pegasus microlight (the rocketship).

We arrived at the airfield about 5pm (after a 5am start) on Sunday and I was almost straight into the tandem hangglider with Judy. I couldn’t believe it – I couldn’t do the tow, or even the simple manoeuvres which I could do from the start back at Wallaby!. On the Monday I flew twice in the morning then twice in the afternoon getting more and more upset. Why couldn’t I do what I was doing at Darley Moor?! We were sat outside watching the Spanish sunset (they have excellent ones), and Judy asked “are you enjoying flying at the moment?” “No, ” I replied. “Well that’s the problem. Let’s just fly to have fun, I (Judy) will do as much or as little as you want”.

So the next morning we flew I went back to just doing the pitch on tow. Fantastic. This was much better! I was so chuffed, because I got so wound up about going solo, buying my harness and a glider I forgot the best bit – the flying. Through the week we built and built on what I could do, but I was still meandering off line. We even tried towing the tandem handglider along the ground, up and down the runway with me and Judy in it to look at different things. It must have looked hilarious.

I had to stop drinking red bull as my tows were a bit too jittery and I got a bit to hyper even Chris Dawes commented about the chattering constantly.

I managed to make Judy giggle. When setting up landings Judy said “Be forceful – put the glider where you want it to go, it will argue.” Judy had showed me how to do a fishtail turn – a very efficient weightshift using your hips. Having nothing to tell me physically that everything is a bit fun ride-ish I did a fishtail to put it where I wanted it. Even the people on the ground heard Judy giggle and she said in a mail to me: Beware of showing people with limited ground movement the joy of extreme fishtailing.

Judy sent me up with Shaun McLaughlan, a psychiatrist tow instructor, as she wanted another view on what was happening(I think she wanted a full mental assesment!). On that flight something clicked or started to. As I have no sense of balance, I have to use my eyes to try and tell me what is the right way up. The kingpost on the tug and the tow line – when it starts meandering the line moves sideways…Genius! If airways get a tug without a kingpost I am screwed! Then Shaun said “Shall we do some wingovers?” I don’t think the tandem had ever done that before!

I went up with Judy and Shaun after that feeling much better about the tow feeling on top of it all, both of them said it was much better!

The solo!

Judy had to go home to the UK the day before, and I went up twice with Shaun coming off the line early both time as wasn’t happy, so I was happily resigned to the fact I wasn’t going solo – much less stress!

It was still before 11am and I was still ‘hung up’ on the tandem. Chris was doing the tug and said “Well what do you think then? You have to take steps sometimes – this is one of those steps.

“Me?” …Gulp!

I had seen two others make bad mistakes during the week (nothing to do with Airways training or crew I must stress, just bad decisions) and I just feared doing the same.

As they wheeled out a solo glider my mind was racing (and a couple of gulps of red bull made it worse!)

They clipped me in. I had been shown how to do a belly landing by Judy and my harness was being stuffed with sheets so I didn’t hurt my legs. Sean taped red tape on the right of the bar and silver on the other. Fantastic idea because I don’t have a clue on my left and right.

My radio was checked and rechecked and to make doubly sure, everything on my hangglider was rechecked. Shaun and Andy were going to run with the handglider launch trolley to make sure it went straight. Meanwhile my panic was rising.

I shouted the command Take up SLACK! My breathing was fast and short. All I could think was how much this glider cost and if I bent it I would be skint.

I shouted the command ALL OUT ALL OUT! Silence. All the screaming in my head stopped. It was totally quiet except the roar of the engine.

The glider went up like a rocket – makes the tandem seem like flying a house. It went a bit too high so I pulled in the bar – about twice the pull in compared to the tandem. It seemed to yaw to one side (never felt this before) and I tried weightshifting it back. I wasn’t moving parallel to the bar which I still can’t believe and pure blind panic set in.

Andy Snell saved my life I think his calm voice talking in my ear – “Relax, George. Relax.”

The solo glider was so twitchy. It felt like it wanted to leap sideways even on a small weightshift but I still was following this yawing. Not correcting it made it worse and worse so I thought it wasn’t going to come back. So it was time to get off the ride (this was about 500ft).

I hit the release. The energy built up so when I released the glider went up in a stall (and Judy’s voice came into my head about not yanking the bar in losing shed loads of height) so I let the glider right itself, and then pulled in to stop it dolphining. Thank god Andy was still there talking calmly to me.

Okay turn red.’ Godsend – thinking about left and right would have lost me so much height!

I made my way back to the runway. Sean ran to get the hangglider launch trolley. Watching the video back, I can see him doing it, but when I was coming down I was still focused on getting the glider down and I didn’t see anything except Andy.

“Right George, you can see me.”

I was heading towards him started pushing out (remember the house-sized tandem I am used to flying) and it shot into the air again (I’ll try that again).

Then a belly landing. I didn’t even feel it.

The whole airfield erupted with cheers and clapping. When Shaun got to me I was happily trying to hold the tears back. I couldn’t talk. The rest of the time was me not really believing that I had done it after all this time!

We were all up at the bungalows by the airfield milling around. Andy and Shaun had just gone to the shops and when they came back they stopped on the other side of the runway. It was strange but I thought nothing more of it. When they drove up they had the ‘Top Gun’ theme tune blaring out. So cool!

So that is my account of the things I can remember. I know I have a long way to go before I am a Pilot and it doesn’t sound much but it has taken me so long to get to this point it showed me I am getting somewhere! All you people that have always thought about it you have no excuse, get to Airways and give it a go! And if you are serious about training or just building your hours, Ontur Spain is the place to go the perfect air I will be there in spring for sure!

I want to thank so many people, I have met so many fantastic people I am sorry if I have missed anything or anyone, but the one person I do have to thank above all, been dragged all around the world by me is Helen my girlfriend she has never moaned or quibbled about flying or the money or the time spent sat in wind/rain freezing to death, she has always been there for me, oh and next year she will fly!

George Ransome

PLEASE NOTE: the specialist flying techniques described are intended to be used as a reference by suitably qualified pilots, instructors and student pilots under instruction. THEY ARE NOT INTENDED AS A TEACH YOURSELF TO FLY FROM SCRATCH GUIDE.