Friday, February 16, 2007

High Flyers - People with disabilities take to the air

Rebecca beside Warrior II - the plane she she learnt to fly.

Reach for the sky

The airfield at Polo Flat, on the outskirts of Cooma NSW, was the main centre of aviation for the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme. Unlike other premises occupied by the Corporation today, it is pretty much as it was in the 1950s. Michael and Elizabeth Apps bought it after the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority (SMHEA) decided to sell up in the late 1990’s, and they continue to operate charter flights for SMHEA staff to outlying airfields in the mountains.

In March 2001 the Apps established the first flying centre for people with disabilites, by adapting the existing facilities at the Polo Flat Airfield, so that students and pilots stay on site (just metres from the aircraft). Rebecca Sexton was one of the first two pilots to be trained. She has always wanted to be a pilot, but was told she wouldn't be able to do it. Having achieved her goal, she now feels an enormous sense of satisfaction at having proved everyone wrong.

The Centre was opened by Polly Vacher, a distinguished English pilot, who was on her record-breaking round the world solo flight to raise awareness and funds for training pilots with disabilities.

Arial view of the Polo Flats Airfield, and landscape.

Polo Flat Airfield is especially suitable for training.

It is close to town, yet over a ridge so not in a position to cause a noise nuisance. It is surrounded by ideal open country for flying training and there are no competing commercial aircraft operations. The weather is good for student pilots, especially in Spring and Autumn. There are also interesting places for navigation flights, for example the coast is 20-30 minutes away for light aircraft and the mountains are even closer. More importantly, there are several airfields nearby to enable students to practice their cross-country skills.

The flying centre offers accommodation, and tourist attractions as well as flying lessons. There are three bedrooms (sleeping up to eight people), showers and toilets, a kitchenette, classroom and a sitting room. It is designed for independence, self-catering and freedom from restrictions imposed by carers and staff. Residential flying training and air experiences (just for fun) can be provided for groups or individuals and scholarships can help those who do not have their own funding. We also offer a holiday destination, somewhere that groups of people with disabilities can come to enjoy the local attractions, including participating in the daily life of a farm and airfield.

To help meet costs we also graze Angus cattle and alpacas, the former quiet curious creatures and the latter friendly animals which enjoy the stimulation of aircraft movements and human visitors.

Wheelies with Wings students enjoying themselves at the airfield.

Wheelies with Wings (WwW)

Most pilots remember vividly the exhilaration of their first solo flight, but for people like Englishman David Williams it was even more special. He wrote, "To be on my own in the air, without the constraints of my wheelchair, was a fantastic feeling. When you drive a car you're at least on a level with able-bodied people. But to go one better, and pilot a plane, is a real thrill." David was paralysed from the waist down since childhood and gained his pilot's licence.

Contrary to popular belief, people with physical disabilities are often of an age and temperament to want to experience adventurous activities and to exercise their independence as far as possible. They get enormous benefits from activities such as riding, sailing, scuba diving, skiing and flying and many find that the morale boost of doing something that is regarded as unusual and a little daring is worth far more than the activity would be to people without any physical limitations. It's a way of making their disability irrelevant, of competing with able-bodied peers and, as we saw at the Paralympics, of excelling.

Sir Douglas Bader, the indomitable World War II pilot who flew in combat despite having lost both legs below the knee, was captured by the Germans and escaped, went on to fly in peacetime as a normal part of his life. He was a great believer in the ability of people to come to terms with physical disabilities and encouraged them to lead full and exciting lives.

In particular he encouraged them to fly. In his memory a scholarship scheme was established to enable people with disabilities to fly. This British scheme has trained many pilots and given back self-esteem to many more people, and currently offers about fifteen scholarships per year.

"Wheelies with Wings" is the new Australian equivalent of the very successful British scheme and it is now sponsoring the Suzi Duncan scholarship courses at Polo Flat.

Student (sitting inside plane) and instructor preparing the plane for takeoff.

Medical and health issues

Before learning to fly, students must undergo a medical examination by a Designated Aviation Medical Examiner (DAME), prior to arrival at the Flying Centre. There is also a local Designated Aviation Medical Examiner, who can be called on if any issues arise during training.

Students intending to fly but not attempting a pilot's licence may also need a medical clearance, as the effects of sudden changes in altitude can affect medical equipment, such as catheters or shunts. General health problems can be handled by the local medical and para-medical community, as Cooma is fortunate in having several local doctors and ancillary health services as well as an excellent local hospital.

Holidays for people with disabilities

There are very few places where groups of people with disabilities can go and holiday together. Polo Flat is also an ideal place to holiday free of family and carers. This region is rich in interest for all visitors with a huge variety of activities, many of them already suitable for people with limited mobility.

Australian Institute of Sport indoor training pool.

Among the many outdoor opportunities available
in the area and suitable for people with disabilities are:

  • archery;
  • rifle shooting;
  • fly fishing in streams and dams with waterside access;
  • using the chairlifts and wheelchair trails to explore the National Park;
  • cruising, canoeing and fishing on Lake Jindabyne and Lake Eucumbene;
  • rafting at Khancoban;
  • horse-back riding;
  • gliding at Bunyan;
  • visits to wineries, the Ag Barn and lavender farms at Bombala;
  • the excellent, wheelchair accessible facilities at the AIS’ Thredbo Alpine Training Centre;
  • swimming at the local pool in summer or the Hospital's therapeutic pool all year;
  • golf, and
  • bowls.

Wheelies with Wings student inspects glider.

Editor's note

Update 26 April 2002: The two students recently awarded Wheelies with Wings scholarships have successfully completed their flying training. They stayed onsite at the Polo Flat Airfield accommodation, living and sleeping flying! The gliding club down the road was welcoming and one of the students was very interested in the news that hand controls can be fitted to gliders too.