Back to life: An aerobatic adventure like no other

I was living the dream. When someone had once asked me what I want to do, I didn’t think it was even possible. Yet, somehow, just a few years later I was doing it. The job title on my business card read “Stunt Pilot”, and it was only partly tongue in cheek. Day in and day out I flew a Pitts Special, a purpose built aerobatic biplane over the stunning vista of Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu. Sharing the aircraft with me would be a tourist, from some far flung corner of the globe, looking for a little more thrill than a bungy jump, a little more exhilaration than a jet boat ride or just a fellow lover of aeroplanes and flight. Even as much as the job was unique and allowed me to hone my craft in the sky, it still became routine. When the one hundredth fifteen minute flight became the one thousandth, when I rolled the aeroplane upside down and heard the excited scream from my nervous passenger for the twelfth time that day, when I eased the little Pitts back onto the runway, I was almost, dare I say it, bored.

But, one day something amazing happened. Something that transcended my love of flight, my passion for rolling and soaring among the mountains and clouds, something truly unique that changed me in a moment. I received a phone call, the speaker told me a story that had me frozen with empathy. His brother, a strong, outgoing, ox of a man, had been tragically injured in a rugby match a year or two earlier. Since then, he was confined to a wheelchair, trapped in his body, a tetraplegic. The only movement he could muster was a slight, almost indiscernible head nod. Cared for in every waking moment, his only way of communicating was to look at a chart of letters and common words. His life was miserable and his family longed to bring him some joy again. The caller explained that they had tried all of the adventure operators in Queenstown, hoping to find a fun activity for him to do, but they had all regretfully turned them away. They said it was unsafe for a tetraplegic to ride in a jet boat, or do a bungy, or any of the dozens of other activities. Then they saw me in my little Pitts, high above the town swooping and climbing, the noise reverberating around the Wakatipu Basin. They asked around, and now they were asking me – can he go up in your plane and do that?

My first thought was no. As tragic as their circumstances were, as disappointing as the rejections must have been, I really couldn’t imagine how I could do it safely or practically. For a start, the aeroplane requires some basic gymnastics just to get into the seat. The two seats are separated from each other with the passenger in front, the pilot behind and communication between normally done by raising a thumb up or down. All of these things were significant limitations. I told them I would think about it, and even though I was not hopeful, I couldn’t bear to be another disappointment, and something in me thought, this could be a great experience for him. So, I pondered the logistics, considered the challenges and risks and decided, with a little imagination, if he was up for it, we could try and make it work. In short, if we could figure out how to get him in the aeroplane, the rest would be simple.  I rung them back, offered them my condition and they excitedly accepted. I hoped I wasn’t promising too much.

They arrived sometime the next afternoon. It was a beautiful day and I had prepared the aircraft as usual, seat belts lying ready to be clipped together. I met the family and they introduced me to Tim. I felt awkward and self conscious, how do you meet someone so terribly afflicted and pretend that it is just another introduction? I’m sure I did a poor job of appearing nonchalant when I was thinking to myself, ‘he is buggared,’ But, despite his immobility his eyes stared hard into mine and I could see a shining spark, a thin thread of who he once was, there inside smiling at me. We manoeuvred him to the aircraft and I demonstrated the usual technique for getting into the front seat. A narrow reinforced area of the inner wing section was the only place that could be stood on, the canopy was a delicate shell of plexiglass, the top wing needed to be avoided also. Standing, leaning or resting on anything that wasn’t the walkway or the seat would damage the aeroplane, in fact a wrong step and you could find yourself stepping through the wing! I tried to downplay my concern for the precious aeroplane as we carefully lifted Tim into position. Even in this state, I could tell he would have been one hell of a rugby player.

It took some minutes but finally we got him inside the aeroplane and I connected the harnesses and fastened them tightly. This was normal procedure, but I gave them an extra pull just to make sure, if he moved around at all, he couldn’t reposition himself and I wouldn’t be able to reach so this was important. Now we had to work out a way of communicating. I obviously couldn’t hold up his letter card, even though I could see his face in a small mirror on the top wing. As routine as aerobatics had become for me, I didn’t think I could manage his communication procedure while screaming downhill at 300 kilometres per hour. We determined that his limited head movement should be enough to answer yes/no questions. I sat behind him, asked him to nod his head and I could clearly see a gentle wobble. Great, all was in order and this was going to happen. His family, full of excitement, wished him luck and I strapped in myself and began my usual routine.

We lined up on the runway, poised for takeoff, I asked Tim over the intercom if he was ready. A gentle nod and I could see him grinning in the mirror. I fed in the throttle, the aeroplane surged forward and away we went. In moments we were airborne and climbing quickly over the mountains. I completed my checks of the engine and settled in for the five minute climb to altitude before we would begin the aerobatics. It occurred to me to make sure Tim was ok so I asked him again over the intercom. Then disaster struck. The vibrations of the aeroplane, a product of having an engine much too big for such a small airframe, meant Tim’s head was shaking continuously, as was mine. Normally it wasn’t an issue, but now I realised the vibration was about the same frequency as Tim’s gentle head nodding. Our only way of communicating had failed! I checked the mirror and he seemed ok, eyes open at least, so I decided to press on and hope for the best.

We arrived at the right altitude and all was in order, it was time to begin the aerobatics. I told Tim we were going to start by flying upside down. I always started this way, the feeling of hanging in your harness, the world spread out in the clear canopy above was thrilling and always elicited a cry of joy or terror (I could never be sure which) from my passenger. Over we went, and over Tim went. One shoulder strap was slightly tighter than the other and he slumped to one side. While inverted he was able to see out but when we rolled back to upright I could see he was slumped to the right with his head facing down. Unable to move, he would be left staring at the cockpit sidewall for the remainder of the flight. That just wouldn’t do, so loosening my own straps a little, I leaned forward and managed to prop him back up. But when I let go, he promptly slumped to his right again. Normally, my right hand would hold the control stick and my left hand would rest on the throttle. But Tim was leaning to the right and the only way I could reach him was to use my right hand. This entailed flying the aeroplane with my left, not an insurmountable challenge, but my well practiced grace in the sky would be affected, just how much remained to be seen.

Holding Tim’s head up with my right hand, my left hand gently pulled back on the stick and we soared up into the sky, back, back we flew, scribing a loop. I leaned my head back, searching for the horizon, relaxing the back pressure on the stick slightly as we floated over the top upside down. A moment of equilibrium in an upside down world, then we were hurtling downhill again. The g-force increasing as the aircraft accelerated, my hand firm on Tim’s head, keeping him straight and able to enjoy the spectacular view as the lake and mountains appeared before us again. I could see him grinning and carried on. Next, we rolled around and around, slightly off kilter as my left hand lacked the muscle memory I was used to with my right, but the manoeuvre was respectable. Tim hardly noticed anything was off as he continued grinning away in the front seat.

Onward we flew, up into a hammerhead stall turn, around and around in a snap roll and a spin. I got creative and began to move Tim’s head around a little to match my own view as I carried out the manoeuvres. As we pulled up I turned his head to the side to watch the horizon twisting around us, then forward and up as we searched for the inverted horizon at the top of another loop. Finally, we rolled level and the aerobatic sequence was complete. I didn’t really know how Tim was doing, he seemed to be ok but what I had thought was a grin could quite easily have been a grimace. As we descended back toward the airport it occurred to me that maybe he was really not good at all and my own enjoyment of the aerobatics had clouded my perception. Now I was worried but his eyes were open and his head was nodding away so there was nothing left for it but to land and face the music.

We pulled up to the parking spot, Tim’s family eagerly looking on as the propeller slowed to a stop. I opened the canopy and his sister came rushing over. “How was it?!” she cried excitedly. Tim was chuckling and grinning in his goofy way and I knew immediately, despite our challenges, that the flight had been a success. We carefully lifted him out of the aeroplane into his wheelchair and his word board arrived. He was ecstatic and had loved every minute. He wanted to do it again. His family were moved to tears and it was hard for me to maintain composure seeing their joy at giving their tragically afflicted brother an experience far removed from the painful struggles of his everyday life. Laboriously, he spoke to me through his chart. “That was the first time I have felt anything since my accident” he said “I felt alive again”.

Never again did my flights in the Pitts Special feel boring or routine as I was constantly reminded of Tim and how fortunate I was to do what I did for a living and to share this experience with countless people, many in the prime of their life, just like Tim. Tim had been robbed of his future through tragedy, but for a few brief moments he forgot about his condition. His arms and legs moved around, his head wobbled and just for a second, it felt again like his body was alive with him. Far more than the simple rush and thrill of diving and swooping across the sky, for Tim, the experience literally brought him back to life, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity I had to share that with him. My selfish passion was not entirely selfish for that moment in time and Tim’s soul soared along with mine.

Some details have been changed and the image is not of Tim but it is of the Pitts Special described.

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