From the west, a Van Sant regular makes his final approach, swooping sharply to land short and roll straight to his starting place on the glider flightline. It’s a white, two-place German sailplane, a Grob-103 Akros. It belongs to Freedom’s Wings International, a non-profit organization that takes disabled people soaring. Since 1986, the organization has been using Van Sant as its base.
The Grob’s pilot is Bill Murphy, a gruff ex-Marine helicopter pilot who lost the use of his legs in a 1978 helo crash. His passenger is Will Keech, a graduating senior at Pennsylvania’s West Chester College who was born with cerebral palsy and relies on an elaborate motorized wheelchair to get around on the ground. Will’s father, Everett Keech, is waiting on the grass with the wheelchair as Murphy brakes the glider to a stop and pops the canopy.
In the front seat, Will Keech is flushed, sweaty, and whooping with excitement. While line boys carefully detach the canopy, four bikers in denims and tattoos who have been watching from the shade volunteer to lift Keech from the cockpit and into his wheelchair. Once in the chair, he seizes the joystick controller, spins to face his father, and launches into a detailed account of cutting circles over Upper Bucks during the last hour and 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, Murphy uses his powerful arms to lever himself out of the back seat, and, once his feet are out and his lightweight hand-powered wheelchair scooted within reach, he hops out. We get to talking, and Murphy tells me that he was one of the organization’s early passengers. “I hated every minute of it,” he confesses of the flight. Being a useless passenger in an engine-less glider only reminded him of how far he’d fallen.
But later, Murphy became intrigued by the flying ability of Freedom’s Wings instructor and president, Ray Temchus, a quadriplegic with limited use of his left hand. In 1988, flying a glider equipped with hand-operated rudder controls, Temchus became the first quadriplegic to be certified as a soaring instructor by the Federal Aviation Administration. If Temchus could do that one-handed, Murphy figured that with both arms, he couldn’t wimp out.
Temchus taught him the basics. Then he showed Murphy the thrills of ridge soaring, playing tag with low-altitude updrafts kicked up along the face of the Appalachian front range. “Being able to soar like a bird is pretty much everybody’s dream,” says Murphy, “but it just seems extra special to take someone out of a wheelchair, put them in a glider, and show them that they can soar.”
Eventually Temchus moved to Florida, and last year Murphy became president of Freedom’s Wings. Today, I hop into the front seat of his glider so he can show me the possibilities 3,000 feet above Van Sant.
Sailplanes are supposed to be smooth and silent, but there’s nothing rougher and noisier than a glider being dragged down a rutted grass strip, especially if your seat is just above its single, unforgiving wheel. Bang bang bump you go, until—whoosh—the glider hops into the air, a kite on a string headed for 3,000 feet. Then it’s smooth.
From the back seat of the Grob, Murphy shouts: “Get hold of the yellow release lever and give it a yank!” The tow plane buzzes away left while Murphy turns the glider right.
Suddenly it’s silent.