What's the next adventure?
On the basis of that sound piece of advice “Stick to what you are good at”, I have a new project which I am really excited about.
As you will see from my section on charity work, I have been connected with flying for the disabled for a few years now and was surprised to learn that as far as I can tell, there is only one disabled balloon pilot in the whole world, the American, Michael Glen. I met Michael a couple of years ago and was pretty inspired by the way he overcame several major obstacles to gain his balloon pilots licence.
Then the incredible success of the Paralympic Games in London made me think that the time was right to promote ballooning as an all-inclusive sport, not just in the UK, but worldwide.
So, here is my pitch for anyone who would like to sponsor, assist, or just be plain interested.
Balloon Flight Training for Disabled Pilots.
There are no physically disabled balloon pilots in Europe. The reasons, I believe, are:
There is a general assumption that balloons cannot be operated safely by disabled persons.
This is simply wrong. If the disabled person has reasonable upper body strength, one good arm and eyesight good enough for driving a car, there is no reason why he or she cannot operate a balloon safely.
2. There are no suitably adapted balloons fit for this purpose.
This was true until the introduction of the dual chair system which allows an instructor to sit next to the student, with all controls easy to hand. Some types of dual chair systems may need minor modifications to permit the safe carrying of a disabled student.
If it were possible, the costs would be too high for the average disabled person.
Whilst this may be true, the costs are exactly the same for an able-bodied person wishing to learn to fly, except that charities and sponsorship may be more easily available for the disabled, which would reduce the cost significantly.
There are opportunities for disabled individuals to enjoy air experience flights in baskets that have been modified for wheelchair access and there are about a dozen operating today. However, for flight training of the wheelchair-bound, this is not suitable as the wheelchair could not be certified as part of the aircraft system, and restraint systems would not be practical for the seated pilot to reach the controls. The dual chair system is therefore the most feasible for training use.
It is my intention to facilitate the training of disabled pilots with the assistance of charities already established to promote flying for the disabled, and the ballooning community throughout Europe. With my experience as a balloon flight instructor and examiner, I will formulate a code of good practice and a standard operating procedures manual for instructors and ground crews specifically addressing the issues of disabled pilots. I believe my notoriety within the ballooning fraternity will assist in the acceptance, participation and promotion of such training. It is not my intention to set up an organisation, foundation or charity, but to work through existing ones.
Of course, any disabled individual who would like to train as a pilot needs to have an adventurous spirit and be prepared for the odd rough landing or two in the course of training. He or she would also need to satisfy the basic medical requirements. The first (and only?) paraplegic pilot in the world is the American Michael Glen and there are some interesting and informative UTube videos showing how he rose to the challenge which can easily be accessed via an internet search. Michael has agreed to assist in this project.
The demand is difficult to assess at this stage, but I would estimate that were a balloon available for training, it would be in constant use when the weather allows. Opportunities to train would be communicated through the press, disabled associations and charities such as Aerobility. I would expect 2 or 3 students each year to qualify for their balloon pilot’s licence for each balloon available.
I plan to take a dual chair system balloon to a variety of events to demonstrate the training system to international disabled flying organisations and instructors hoping that other countries will follow this example. I will also make myself available to meet and discuss the opportunities with any interested groups.
In two years from now, I would expect to see training operations for disabled pilots available in most of the EASA (European) countries. In five years from now I would expect to see disabled pilots competing against able-bodied pilots in balloon competitions, and also competitions and events organised specifically for the disabled. There will certainly be disabled pilots taking part in fun events and festivals around the globe and hopefully an exchange system whereby pilots could travel to other countries without the need to transport their balloons if facilities already exist in those countries.
As an honorary president of Handiflight in Switzerland and an ambassador for Aerobility in UK, I already have very good contacts within the disabled flying world. Whilst these charities are mainly involved with powered aircraft and gliders, I know that ballooning would be a welcome addition. In the worldwide ballooning fraternity I am well known and have many friends and colleagues willing to assist.
There are two manufacturers producing the type of flying equipment suitable for training disabled pilots: Ultramagic Balloons in Spain and Cameron Balloons in the UK. Following discussion with both, they have agreed to further develop their equipment to facilitate disabled flying, without charge. Ultramagic Balloons have offered to produce their modifications in time for the Chateau d’Oex Balloon Festival in January 2013 and will support this project by loaning the Duo Chair system and a balloon until such time as new equipment can be purchased through sponsorship.
Cameron Dual Chair. Ultramagic Duo Chair.
With the instruction and crew initially provided by volunteers and other support provided by the charities and sponsors, it is expected that flight training will cost the student (or sponsor) around £60 per flying hour. This compares with the established flight training schools currently charging able-bodied students around £230 per hour.
I am delighted that my good friends at Breitling have agreed to support this project. Their involvement in this ballooning project elevates it in several important ways. Because Breitling is an aspirational brand within all forms of aviation and beyond, by putting its name to this pioneering project it will add a sense of notability and kudos, helping to raise awareness of disability issues and assist in changing attitudes both in the regulatory bodies and the flying community at large. Its on-going support will also mean that the goals should be realised in a shorter time frame. On a personal level, it will once again be a pleasure to work with a company which has contributed so much to the history of aviation and to individual aviators, including myself.
This is a pioneering project developing ballooning as an inclusive sport and providing support and generating awareness for the disabled. Most importantly, it will enable disabled people to enjoy the freedom of the skies and to participate and even compete on equal terms with the able-bodied. An impossible dream some might think, but one which will come true with the success of this programme.