News & Features — 14 November 2016 at 1:09 pm

Glide!

Access to the outdoors is at the heart of adventure medicine and this inspiring and joyful short film illustrates that to perfection. Glide! is the story of four American wheelchair users’ quest to fly paragliders. We liked it so much that we had a chat to the director and producer, Niels Dachler, for the background to the tale.

How did it all start?

I first met them at Point of the Mountain in Utah. The site is one of the more majestic sights in America. Paragliders, hang gliders, hawks and model airplanes play here with incredible density and delight that the sky often resembles some kind of flying circus. I was a film producer and paraglider pilot, hoping to help tell their story.

At the time, Sarah was a dancer, a ‘pizza delivery professional’ and a knitter of stuffed aliens. Ernie was a retired Air Force rescue jumper, Darol, a day trader and Muffy, a mother and seven times Olympic medalist. We all gathered with Rob Sporrer and Nick Greece, two of the best paragliding instructors in the US, to take to the skies.

As a paraglider pilot yourself, how did it feel to fly with the four of them?

Witnessing their first solo flights were some of the most memorable days of my life. For Sarah it was in Salt Lake City. For Ernie and Darrel it was a high peak in San Bernadino, California. As Sarah says so memorably in the film, ‘when you are a in a wheelchair, you feel like you are in a wheelchair. In this, you feel like all the other pilots’. And that is how it was once we were up flying, it was just like sharing the sky with four other pilots.

Were there any particular technical challenges faced by the pilots once airborne?

Paraglider pilots exert much of their control over the wing by weight-shifting the body from one side to another. This is more difficult if you lack full control of the hips. However, the design of the chair was great here, as the paragliding harness was designed to ‘float’ above the wheelchair in flight, providing a freedom that maximised weight shift. Also, the wing’s angle of attack (and so its speed) is conventionally adjusted using a bar operated by the pilot’s feet. We are still trying to come up with a good design to give our pilots that added control.

Have there been challenges since?

The enthusiasm never dies, but the support for the program comes in spells. There are a lot more inquiries than the program can currently handle – we need to formalise the program to be able to serve that demand. The health of paraplegics can often be more precarious than the average pilot, so that gives us a sense of added urgency.

We are not the only people doing this, there are lots of innovators around the world designing paragliding equipment for paraplegics. This leads to lots of one-off, experimental prototypes that have provided us with a lot of insight and experience. However, as it becomes a broader effort it would be great if they could cooperate on a more universal, standardised design. This would help pilots fit more seamlessly into a club environment when they leave the program.

You can find out more about the Wheels Up program on their website. In the UK, check out Flyability, the British Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association’s access programme for those with disabilities, and specialist centres such as Escape Paragliding in Cumbria.