Aputees take to the sky
DAC takes to the skies. The limbless aviators follow in the footsteps of the legendary Douglas Bader.
Despite the lack of limbs it is possible to control an aircraft and each of the disabled aviators took the controls of the aircraft for most of the flight time, ranging the skies as far a field as Carsington Reservoir, Alton Towers and Uttoxeter.
It was a warm sunny morning as the members of the Derby Amputee Club arrived at the Tatenhill Airfield for a trial flying lesson. We had had a visiting speaker from the British Disabled Flying Association some months previously who had inspired the group to have a go in a light aircraft.
As Mark readied the aircraft for the day, members made themselves comfortable arranging plastic garden chairs in the outside refreshments area and out came the cameras to record the event. In all there were eight amputees preparing to take the controls and four carers who would sit in the back of the aircraft and put their trust in these pilots.
Once the flight checks were completed, the wing tanks filled with fuel and the engine warmed up, Waqas, a young man who lost both legs and an arm to meningitis about seven years ago boarded the low wing Piper PA28 Cherokee, where he donned the headset and listened to the instructions of Mark, as he described the controls and gauges that would be used during the flight.
Next Mark restarted the engine and went through the safety checks that precede every flight. Once all was in order, Mark taxied the aircraft over to the concrete runway and checked that the area surrounding him, both on the ground and in the air, was clear of other aircraft, before moving onto the end of the runway.
He explained that there was a slight cross wind and this made both take off and landing a little more difficult, but today our flyers would only be controlling the aircraft once in flight, so there was no need to be concerned.
On the ground and in the comfort of the refreshment area the remainder of the group watched as the 150hp engine of the aircraft increased in speed and the noise level rose, dragging the light aircraft down the runway.
Inside the aircraft Mark was explaining that the aircraft would gather speed to around 70 knots, when he would pull back on the controls and at that point the aircraft would rotate and lift off from the ground.
Surprisingly inside the aircraft it was fairly quiet, despite the noise of the engine and propeller clawing at the air, as the occupants were protected by the sound deadening qualities of the headphones, and communication was via a microphone attached to the headset.
As the heartbeat increase with the rush of adrenaline and excitement, the aircraft rushed down the runway, passing the fellow club members and not long afterwards the nose lifted and the aircraft left the ground leaving all the bumps and vibrations behind as she smoothly climbed into the clear blue yonder. Well almost clear, but there were still some clouds sitting high above which threatened showers later in the day.
The aircraft climbed past 1000 feet, while Mark explained various bits and switched off the electric fuel pump, which is a backup, only used for take off and landing. Once levelled out Mark showed the budding pilot how to steer right, left, up and down, and also the gauge showing the height and then said, 'OK, climb to about 2000 feet'. The steering control was gently and gingerly pulled back by our novice and the nose of the aircraft rose as the propeller clawed at the air pulling us ever heavenward.
Once levelled out at 2000 feet, Mark said to do a trial turn to the right and left, then pointed the aircraft northward and said, 'It is up to you now, and you can go where you want.' The student banked the aircraft and headed off in one direction, occasionally adjusting the level of flight to bring the altitude back to 2000 feet and enjoyed the exhilaration of flying an aircraft. Towards the end of the flight, Mark gave instructions on what heading to take on the compass and the aircraft made its way back towards the airfield.
Once the aircraft was upwind of the field, it flew parallel with the runway at 1000 feet and about half a mile past the end Mark said to turn left, then left again as the nose pointed towards the beckoning runway. At this point Mark took over the controls for the first time since take off and gently guided the aircraft back onto the concrete, than having turned the aircraft though 180 degrees he taxied it back to the waiting group, who had been chatting in his absence, but had eagerly focused on the plane as they saw it come into sight on the approach to the airstrip.
While all this had been taking place, other members of the amputee club were arriving and Louise from the BDFA did a wonderful job of looking after the increasing crowd, while explaining to various people the technicalities of flying. Bacon butties, tea, coffee and other refreshments were available in the canteen where there were tables and chairs in the warm, but the hardy group chose to sit outside in the generally sunny climate with a slight chilling breeze.
After each flight the engine would be shut off while the candidates changed places and photographs were taken of the successful pilot. A break was taken for lunch and the wing tanks were topped up with fuel ready for the afternoon session. The clouds had gathered, but the group were enjoying themselves and were not disheartened in any way. After the final flight, the group gathered around the plane and a photograph was taken for posterity and the club webpage. On some of the flights there was a passenger in the back who put their trust in the budding pilot in front to bring them back in one piece.
We then decided to retire to the Byrkley Garden Centre for a cuppa and to compare stories. Everyone had enjoyed themselves and had grand tales of their exploits to tell.