Sky-High in a Wheelchair

Disabled Veterans Soar with Eagle Paragliding

Ernie Butler lands at Elings Park (April 20, 2012)
Paul Wellman

They can’t walk, but they can fly.

Two paraplegic veterans, members of the WheelsUp program that’s training disabled people to paraglide, made a trip to Elings Park last month for a number of solo flights from Santa Barbara’s world-class launch site.

Sitting in a custom-made wheelchair suspended below a neon fabric canopy, the vets barreled down the hilltop park’s grassy slope with someone pushing from behind and watching as their wings filled with mild offshore breezes to send them airborne. After soaring above a small swath of the South Coast, the fliers touched down on a designated landing area, high-fived and smiled wide, then did it all again.

Ernie Butler was a pararescuer in the special forces from 1969-1976, completing more than 6,000 skydives in his military career. He was left paralyzed below the waist 15 years ago in a skydiving accident, and he described what it felt like to be back in the air. “It was incredible,” he said. “I was back home.” Butler was quick to compliment the groups that made his return to the blue possible: the University of Utah engineers and students who designed the special wheelchair (called the Phoenix), and Rob Sporrer of S.B.-based Eagle Paragliding, who heads the WheelsUp instructor team with competitive glider Nick Greece.

Butler knew what to expect when it came to the procedures and mechanics of his first solo flight in a wheelchair, but he wasn’t sure how he would react. Any trepidation melted away when he left the ground. “Everything just worked to perfection,” he said. “If I have my knees in the breeze, I’m a happy camper.” Executive director of the Northwest chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America — which contributed funding for the program — Butler also runs a camp for disabled kids up in Seattle. Recreation, he believes, is a key motivator for those with limited mobility to feel part of a community and capable of living a regular life.

Darol Kubacz lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident 12 years ago but has made it his passion to develop and participate in adaptive extreme sports — rough-and-tumble activities that wheelchair-bound men and women can participate in. The former armored cavalry soldier, for instance, recently scaled Mt. Kilimanjaro in an off-road arm bike. Paragliding caught his eye a few years ago, and he tried to develop his own wheelchair rig by strapping wheels to a mono-ski and attaching it to a harness. After a few rounds of trial and error, Kubacz joined with WheelsUp and has been flying with them since.

“I love what this sport is all about,” he said. “Instead of everyone trying to prove something,” he explained, lamenting the inflated egos that sometimes suffocate the fun out of other extreme sports, “it’s everyone trying to share something.” On the sensation of gliding on his own without propellers or propulsion, Kubacz said, “It’s all I had anticipated and more. It’s the ultimate freedom. It’s the closest anyone can get to experiencing absolute free flight.”

Instructors Sporrer and Greece said they’re still developing and fine-tuning their program’s curriculum, but hope to someday soon expand WheelsUp to other locations around the country. In the meantime, they’ll keep working with Butler, Kubacz, and three other veterans, pushing them literally and figuratively into a place where wings trump wheels.


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