Gift of Wings

Gift of Wings

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Gift of Wings

I have a sense of euphoric well-being when I fly, and I suspect that the same private ecstasy rises in the hearts of all pilots. Humans are shattered beings, but pilots heal themselves in the sky. Flying is an impudent act, a metaphor for freedom.

June Callwood

It happened on a perfect autumn day. It happened in a fraction of a second. Our love of hang gliding had brought about twenty-five of us to an eight hundred-foot ridge in upper New York state, one of my favourite sites. Just two years earlier, I had done my first high-soaring flight here, wheeling and dancing in the skies for almost three hours. The experience was overwhelming. Over the years I had pursued motorcycling, scuba diving under ice, barefoot waterskiing and skydiving. But after that first flight, I was totally captivated. Nothing could touch this. I knew I had found my sport.

September 12, 1981. As one of the instructors, I was first to launch and verify wind and thermal conditions. It had been gusty, but by two o’clock it looked settled enough. “Clear,” I yelled, eager to fly. But just as I pushed off, a gust of wind stalled my wing. Moments later I smashed through the low-lying bushes, and then . . . total, surrealistic quietness.

It wasn’t a violent crash, but at the moment of impact I felt a “twang”—as if some internal rubber band had snapped off its hooks. I had the sudden, sickening feeling that something overwhelming had happened. I ran a quick body check and then tried to flex my leg muscles. Nothing. When I reached down to touch them, there was no sensation. Then it hit me. I had broken my back. I was paralyzed.

Less than a hundred feet away, my friends awaited my call that everything was okay. But first I needed to grasp what had happened. My thoughts for the next thirty seconds were planted indelibly in my brain. I’ve broken my back. I’m going to spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. I don’t think I can handle this. I don’t think I want to live. There was a short pause, and then I found myself insisting, No! I still have my mind. I need to see this as a challenge. The issue here is not my broken back; it’s my attitude. How I handle this is up to me.

It was the most dramatic turning point of my life. In the space of a few seconds I had to make the transition from a world that celebrated physical activity to being in a wheelchair. Only then did I finally yell for help.

My new home following the accident was an electric circle bed in Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital. “You’d better get used to it,” the staff informed me. “You’re likely to be here for a couple of months.”

While in the hospital, I asked myself the same questions repeatedly: Who am I? Could this still be me? From Mr. Jock to this, all because one connection had been broken? It seemed impossible. I had always known intellectually that I was equal parts body, mind and spirit. Now I began to feel that belief in my heart as well. If the most important part of my essence was spiritual, I realized that in the greater scheme of things, my broken back was secondary.

One day, I was totally immersed in these thoughts and looking for an affirmation of some kind. My answer came that evening. As I prepared for bed, I was startled to see my big toe move slightly—an unquestionable miracle! The next morning my therapist was awestruck to discover I had weak movement in every major muscle group of my lower body. We hugged and cried together out of sheer joy!

I had been told I would never move my lower body again, and yet I had. “A significant, spontaneous improvement in the lower extremities,” was noted on my file. It seemed to me the word “miracle” was easier to spell.

The gift of healing continued, and within a few days, by supporting myself with parallel bars, I could stand. After four months of therapy, I could walk short distances using canes. By now I was in the rehabilitation wing. Two weeks after arriving, my old hang-gliding buddy Bob came to visit on a lovely, warm Saturday morning in October.

“We’re going out to the parking lot to get some air,” I told the nurse as I wheeled down the hall. I didn’t tell her about the sign on my door, “Gone Flying.” Our supposed “parking lot” was really a three hundred-foot grass strip behind a farmer’s barn. There, resplendent with its rainbow-coloured wings, was Bob’s gift of magic—his single-seat, ultralight plane, fully gassed and ready to fly.

Was I afraid? Yes, absolutely. This was not a flight to be rushed. But after several high-speed taxi runs to reorient myself, I felt ready. With heart-pounding anticipation, I pulled back on the throttle and took off. I was in the air. I was flying!

I flew that day. And flew and flew. As I buzzed the field and saw my empty wheelchair below, I was overcome by this serendipitous moment. Even if I couldn’t walk, I could still fly! In that moment, I knew I would again find meaning and excitement in my life. I was ecstatic! I could fly! I would fly!

Two-and-one-half hours later, utterly euphoric, I headed back to the hospital. It had been the most memorable flight of my life. The sight of my empty wheelchair brought with it a leap of hope. Things could only get easier from now on.

My romance with flight continued. Within eight months of my accident, I was teaching eager students to fly in a new, two-seat ultralight. By the following summer, I had opened my own flight school. One day, an idea suddenly came to mind. Why not fly one of these machines across Canada? If you can go twelve miles, why not 5,000? And so the dream was born. Soon it became a clear conviction, not just a crazy idea—I knew I had to do it.

I decided to make the flight a fund-raising venture for the Canadian Paraplegic Association and tie it into Expo ’86, the World’s Fair in Vancouver.

“Forget it Carl,” was the message from conventional pilots I spoke to. “This has never been done before with an ultralight.” Not stated, but sometimes implied were the words “. . . let alone by someone in a wheelchair.” And then there was the money. I calculated the cost would be over $100,000, and now I had to find the funds. But when Air Canada committed itself as a major sponsor, and Expo ’86 endorsed my flight, I knew it was going to happen.

The planning was so endless, at one point I became overwhelmed and began to doubt myself. Why am I taking this chance? What if the experts are right and this just isn’t possible? It was then I had to forgo my programmed need for security and make the deliberate decision to take a risk. Without that decision, the dream might have died at this point.

The big day finally arrived. Just outside Halifax Harbour, my ultralight bobbed gently in the Atlantic Ocean. I taxied out to open sea, took a deep breath and shoved the throttle full forward. Moments later I was airborne! At three hundred feet I banked right, gave a final wave—a dip of the wings—and then headed west to Vancouver, five-thousand long miles away.

With a ground team travelling with me, I had to land every couple of hours to refuel. My memorable journey included moments of great euphoria and incidents of near disaster. Once, my engine failed at two hundred feet, resulting in a forced landing on the Trans-Canada Highway in northern Ontario. Often, it was fear that occupied the second seat of my craft. Had I chosen to remain focused on my fear, however, there were many places that the flight might have ended. Instead, I chose to keep my thoughts on my goal—Vancouver and Expo ’86—and carry on. The media followed us on our journey, and CTV produced a one-hour documentary for Canadian television. In the end, my flight raised more than $100,000 for the Canadian Paraplegic Association.

If there was a moment of pure joy on this flight, it happened in August in the middle of the Rockies. At five-thousand feet I suddenly encountered a thermal, a column of warm air rising upward. My reactions were instinctive, and I was soon spiralling up higher and higher until I had passed eleven-thousand feet. Then magic happened. Off to my left, a bald eagle, less than one hundred feet away, drifted past my wing in effortless flight, silent as a shadow. For one brief moment, he turned toward me and our eyes locked. Time was suspended as this master of flight and I shared an almost sacred encounter. The spell broke just as quickly when the eagle dipped a wing, veered gracefully and disappeared. I flew on alone, overcome with a sense of wonderment and oneness with the sky.

August 28, 1986. It had been fifty-eight days and five-thousand miles, and now there were just thirty more miles to go. My heart was full with emotion as the Pacific Ocean slid into view.

“Gift of Wings, give us a smile on your left,” my headset suddenly crackled. I jumped, startled by this intrusion. Off my left wing tip hung a huge helicopter with a photographer perched in its open door. A television news crew was filming this last chapter of my journey. We flew in formation over the city toward the coast, where I circled over the pavilions of Expo. I was suddenly tempted to turn and head back to the mountains. I wanted to keep flying. I had gently in the ocean waves—this time the Pacific Ocean. I had done it! A coast-to-coast flight in an ultralight aircraft. I had been given my Gift of Wings!

Carl Hiebert
Waterloo, Ontario

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