International Disability Day: On wheelchairs and wings

Meet two men who can’t walk, so they’re flying around the world instead

Updated - December 03, 2018 02:07 pm IST

Published - December 02, 2018 10:14 pm IST - Mumbai

Mike Lomberg

Mike Lomberg

On November 17, two light sport aircraft took off from Geneva, Switzerland, headed for Verona, Italy: not unusual in a part of the world where you needn’t be wealthy to fly small planes for leisure. This was the first leg of an around-the-world trip: again, not unprecedented. What is remarkable is that the pilots of Céline and Dreamcatcher (more formally, HB-WAY and HB-WYB), Guillaume Féral and Mike Lomberg, are wheelchair users.

Mr. Féral , 58, French but Madagascar-born, learnt to fly at age 19, but at 25 crashed while learning to fly gliders, and lost the use of his legs. Mr. Lomberg , 60, a South African Air Force pilot who later worked as a test pilot, had a vehicle accident in 1990 which damaged his spinal cord. Both have accumulated a lot of flying hours as disabled pilots (Mr. Féral is also a qualified instructor).

Mr. Féral and Mr. Lomberg will not be the first paraplegic pilots to solo around the world — that was Don Rodewald, a former US Air Force pilot, in 1984 — but they will be the first to do so in a light sport aircraft. Records don’t matter though; their mission is combating prejudices and promoting the inclusion of disabled people.

Their expedition, which takes them to six continents and 80 countries in 150 hops over nine months, is supported by Lions International and is raising funds for Handicap International. It has been conceived and managed by Handiflight, a nonprofit that has focused on attracting disabled pilots from around the world to fly in Switzerland. This year, Handiflight decided to take their message to the world. Fundraising began in 2016, and the pilots began training for the expedition in April this year. They are accompanied on their trip by a support craft, a Piper Comanche, which carries equipment that doesn’t fit into the smaller plane’s holds, including Mr. Lomberg’s wheelchair.

When The Hindu spoke to the duo on Saturday, they had flown, via Italy, Greece, and Egypt, to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Next stop: Dubai, UAE, then Karachi Pakistan. They will be in India later this month (Ahmedabad Dec 13–17, Nagpur December 17–21) before leaving for Chittagong, Bangladesh, and the rest of their route .

They had been pretty much confined to their hotel, as Riyadh is difficult to get around in without a car or functioning legs. But the journey has been wonderful. “We’ve been ‘on the road’ now for almost 14 days,” Mr Lomberg says, “and it took a few days to get used to how amazing people have been. And just when you just start to enjoy their company, you have to say goodbye, then meet a whole new bunch of people. It’s tough in a way, because I met people I would like to spend more time with. But you can’t; you have to keep moving.”

They are grateful to be in an era when tech makes keeping in touch and flying easier. Unlike in the era of compasses and paper maps, they are navigation devices that can help even small planes “stick to our route as well as any airliner,” as Mr. Féral puts it.

How hard was it to start flying again after their accidents? Mr. Lomberg, who began flying again around 2010, says, “I was working as professional pilot. After my accident, I couldn’t fly, but I continued in the same flight test environment for another ten years. I actually didn’t know that you could go back to flying and didn’t consider it. I’m not really sure why, in retrospect. A friend of mine from the military days has a helicopter, and he kept on pushing me to get back to flying. It was him who pushed me to look for an aeroplane I could buy and modify. I don’t really have any regrets in life, but if I did, it is that I didn’t do this 20 years ago.” Mr. Féral says, “Since I was nine or so, not flying was not an option. When I had my accident, I did not have much experience. It took me three or four years before I admitted my condition. That is, after my accident, I was still considering flying, but in my head, but when my legs were healed. Only once I accepted that [they wouldn’t] did I resume flying in an adapted aircraft.”

Once they did get back in the air, they say, it was easy to adapt. “It didn’t even take me one flight to get used to the hand control,” Mr. Féral says. “When you use the use of any organ, you don’t need to be smart; your brain adapts to the new situation. The training I needed was more to update my knowledge of the use of airspaces and communications and so on, not so much the flying.” Mr. Lomberg adds, “I got used to it fast too. Your brain gets used to it quickly, the [relationship between] movement you do in the inside and what happens outside becomes intuitive.”

Besides, technology, and changing attitudes, have helped people with various physical disabilities be pilots, they say.

Guillaume Féral

Guillaume Féral

Mr. Féral says there is a community of blind pilots in France who use a device called SoundFlyer that gives them headphone inputs on everything their aircrafts are doing and where they are. “They can fly 90% of the flight autonomously.” And while there is already a strong community of deaf pilots in the USA, tech is now arriving that can help pilots with hearing disabilities communicate with Air Traffic Control via text and computers. Mr. Lomberg says that while qualifying for his European licence in Aerobility, an organisation in the UK that trains pilots with all kinds disabilities, “I was surprised initially, because I met pilots who are not just paraplegics, but with a range of disabilities: quadriplegics, people with various degrees of cerebral palsy. [Aerobility] just adapts the training and aircraft to the individual, with a syllabus exactly the same as any other flying school. It was quite an emotional experience for me. There are new disabilities coming into flying, if I can put it like that. For each one there is some kind of regulation process to understand how it is going to work. I think the European environment, and even more the UK, is open to accommodating pilots with various disabilities.”

In their cockpits, they each have a small stuffed toy, a lion. The names of their mascots have stories. “Mine is called Dorine, for Dorine Bourneton ,” Mr. Féral says. “She’s an aerobatic pilot. She had an aircraft accident when she was 16; she was not the pilot. She became paraplegic in the crash. She resumed flying pretty quickly, and in France she is pretty well known. She is the person who changed everything in France, to start with, and then Europe, for licensing physically disabled persons [to be pilots]. She opened the way to the commercial pilot license, the instrument rating pilot, flight instructor rating, and so on. She’s very good pilot, a nice girl, and my best friend.” Ms. Bourneton wrote a book, and a young woman, Sarah Ramseier, read it, and was very impressed. She decided to organise, as a school project, flying for disabled pilots in Gruyere, Switzerland, which became Handiflight, co-founded with her father, Daniel Ramseier. The lion in Mr. Lomberg’s plane is named for her.

As their expedition continues, when in Australia and New Zealand and the Americas, disabled pilots of ten nationalities will be joining them their flight, two at a time. “This going to be fun,” Mr. Lomberg says, chuckling. “They can fly, do the flight planning, we can take photographs, relax. I’m enjoying the solo flying — it is challenging and interesting — but I’m really looking forward to having some company in the cockpit.” Why not on other sectors? Aside from risky legs like ocean crossings, where the co-pilot’s seat will be removed to make place for a life-raft, there are other reasons, Mr. Féral says. “When Daniel was looking for disabled pilots to volunteer to fly with us, there weren’t any [in these areas] he could identify. We got to know rather recently that there are [disabled] people flying in some of these areas. To be honest, we also don’t have all the money we need. We are hoping to get more partners while we proceed. One of the reasons we only decided to have other pilots in some areas is that in these countries the fuel is not so expensive. In Australia, for example, we almost certainly will not have to pay any landing or handling fee. We recently had a terrible experience with handling costs, and fuel about two-and-a-half times what it costs in Europe.”

What are their India plans? For both, it is a first visit. On the itinerary: meetings with members of Fédération Aéronautique Internationale and Lions International, and a chat with two young women who are doing an around the world expedition ( The Hindu’s story , update 1 , update 2 ). Aside from that, Mr. Féral says, “We don’t know. Each time we arrive somewhere, it is always beyond our expectations. We must leave some things open to randomness and what life can offer us.”

Mr. Lomberg agrees. “We are discovering people as we get closer [to each halt], opportunities to engage with people we would never otherwise come across. I read a book once which said, if you only visit one country other than the one where you live, visit India; that has always stuck in my mind. I’ve always been wary as a disabled person of taking a holiday in India, but I have decided I need to approach this with a complete open heart and open mind and discover what made [that author] say that.”

Follow Handiflight on their site and Facebook. Readers who want to support the expedition, see their page on Handicap International.

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