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Wounded Vets Try Paragliding From Wheelchairs PDF Print E-mail
Wounded Vets Try Paragliding From Wheelchairs

By David Frank

Wheels Up: The Able Pilot program in Ketchum, Idaho, puts paraplegics formerly in the military in the air with paragliders.

KETCHUM, Idaho — Searching for ways to keep his adrenaline pumping after a motorcycle accident forced him out of the military and into a wheelchair, Darol Kubacz recast himself as something of a pioneer of extreme sports.

First he took up downhill skiing, racing and jumping with such abandon that he broke his spine a second time. After a painful rehab he started mountain biking and scuba diving, and even hauled his barrel-chested frame up Mount Kilimanjaro.

Last month, that risks-be-damned pursuit of adventure drew Mr. Kubacz from his home in Arizona to a rocky mountaintop here to do something a pair of working legs never would have allowed anyway — take flight.

“Like the Marines say,” he said, “adapt and overcome.”

And with the crunch of sagebrush under a new, modified wheelchair, Mr. Kubacz, 37, and his instructor rolled down the slope and then soared into the expanse, his paraglider canopy lofting in the breeze.

For generations, returning soldiers with serious disabilities, whether sustained in combat or in risky off-duty pursuits like motorcycling, found limited — and relatively tame — options for athletic recreation. But the latest generation of disabled veterans are increasingly returning to the thrill-seeking activities they enjoyed before their injuries.

As they expand the range of so-called adaptive sports to surfing, rock climbing and white-water rafting, with the help of new technology and public and private financing, these veterans have worked to prove that a wheelchair does not necessarily require its occupant to stick to level ground.

“They are doing things we never thought possible 10 years ago,” said Kirk Bauer, executive director of Disabled Sports USA. Back when Mr. Bauer lost a leg in Vietnam, the organization had one chapter teaching one sport (skiing); today it has more than 100 chapters and offers 30 sports.

“They love speed, they love challenge, they love risk,” Mr. Bauer said. “And they are really pushing the envelope.”

That was the clear goal for the five paraplegic military veterans, none injured in combat, who arrived here last month to learn to paraglide, a type of unpowered flight similar to hang gliding but using equipment that more closely resembles a parachute.

Pilots launch on foot and then sit in a harness below a canopy, which can be steered with hand controls. Those with experience can stay aloft for hours before landing, typically in an open field.

Though they are not the first paraplegics to paraglide, they were the first being taught from scratch using a new device called the Phoenix, with a wheelchair in place of a normal harness. The eventual goal is for participants to pursue the high-altitude sport on their own, perhaps even at a competitive level.

“I knew I could do it with the right equipment, but I just didn’t know whether anyone had been brave enough to try it yet,” said Erik Burmeister, 37, who was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident.

 After his injury, Mr. Burmeister learned to ski and scuba dive, doing each as often as possible. One day, at home in Pennsylvania, he searched the Internet for an activity that would replicate the thrill of his dozen parachute jumps with the Army and stumbled upon information about the Able Pilot program, the group organizing the first wheelchair paragliding class. He was one of the five chosen from more than 100 applicants.

 “We’ve all accepted that our mobility is limited,” he said. “But it’s a constant grind to drag our wheels around. In all these sports, moving is effortless again. The sense of freedom is just so incredible.”

 The four-day training program served up constant reminders of the inevitable trial and error that comes with learning a new sport, particularly for someone in a wheelchair. During the introductions, the participants were told they were not hamsters in some experiment. Still, they embraced the role of putting their bodies on the line. By the end, four of the five had tipped or rolled over on landing; the fifth crashed on an aborted takeoff.

The volunteer instructors, as well as engineers from the University of Utah, took notes as the students suggested ways to change teaching methods and improve the wheelchair design to better fit their needs.

The program was paid for with grants from the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, with help from the local Sun Valley Adaptive Sports. A number of other groups declined to offer support, calling the program too risky.

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