Nonprofit organizations Operation PROP and
Freedom's Wings International help those with
spinal-cord injuries take to the skies in
specially-adapted planes and gliders.
Two nonprofit organizations a thousand miles apart share one common, driving goal: helping people with disabilities enjoy a personal flying experience no commercial airliner can ever provide.
“I know what it’s like to lose the ability to fly and to get it back. You can’t put a price tag on that,” says Linwood Nooe, founder of Missouri-based Operation People Reaching Outrageous Potential (PROP).
Since 2011, his organization has coordinated volunteer pilots who donate aircraft, fuel and their time to provide wounded veterans and people with disabilities, both physical and developmental, the opportunity to experience the joy of flight.
“We want people to see that a disability does not have to stop them from enjoying a full life,” Nooe says. “Our flying events inspire people to believe that anything is possible.”
Operation PROP began after Nooe, who regained his pilot’s license after overcoming his own medical challenges, began working with youth. Then he took his son’s friend, paralyzed while serving in the military, up to fly.
“He had been in the hospital for two years. The flight really lit him up. That flight and that time in the air had been the best time he’d had since his accident,” Nooe says. “That’s when I realized that, if I can do this so easily, it’s what I need to do.”
Meanwhile, at airports in New Jersey and Philadelphia along the shore of the Delaware River, Freedom’s Wings International (FWI) provides people with spinal-cord injury and disease the opportunity to fly in specially-adapted sailplanes, either as a passenger or as a member of the flight training program.
“It’s an amazing experience, flying,” says Chris Lynch, FWI president and since 1979, a T-12 complete paraplegic. “I’m a mechanical, high-speed junky. I’ve raced cars, ride snowmobiles, waterski, snow ski. As soon as I heard there were hand controls for the gliders, I was in.”
Run by and for people with physical disabilities, FWI was founded in 1981 by Irv Soble, a commercial pilot, and Mary DeAngelo-Soble, a glider pilot, after they were approached by a woman using a wheelchair while tending a static display of a glider. The woman said she dreamed of learning to fly someday. They offered her a glider ride, and FWI was born.
Since that first flight, the organization has grown from providing introductory flights to providing training for instructors, ground crew and flying students. Its leaders hope to serve as a resource and model for other organizations interested in building similar programs.
“We fly the ridge system — Allegheny, Kittatinny, and Blue Ridge — that runs from Pennsylvania, New Jersey down into Virginia,” Lynch says. “When the thermals are working on the ridge, you can fly below the treetops down the sides of the mountains for hundreds of miles at really high speed. I really love bringing people in to experience that.”
It’s Always “You Can”
Both programs leave wheelchairs and “I can’ts” on the ground.
“The freedom of flying is unbelievable,” says Mike Smith of Kemah, Texas.
The 69-year-old Smith began his career in the air on a whim in 1967 when a friend invited him to take some lessons. He earned his commercial pilot’s license while he was still a teen before he was drafted into the U.S. Army. His flight skills earned him a spot as a helicopter pilot, including a 1968–69 tour of duty in Vietnam.
“They told me I could walk for two years or fly for four. It was a pretty easy decision,” Smith says.
After his return to the U.S., Smith flew for just about anyone. He served as a flight instructor in Alabama and flew for the California Air National Guard, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
“I’d rather be flying an airplane upside down on fire than getting a root canal,” Smith says. “When you’re flying, at least you can do something about whatever situation you’re in.”
In 1981, he was paralyzed from the hips down after the helicopter he was flying on a crop-dusting job hit power lines. Even with more than 9,000 hours of flight time under his belt, Smith was told he could no longer fly. He returned to college, earned a degree in hospital administration and began a new career.
Two years later, he was back in the cockpit flying over fires in fixed-wing aircraft decked out with hand controls.
“I couldn’t stand being in an office,” Smith says. “I like being in a cockpit at altitude.”
He ran a flight school, flew commercial charters, served as president of International Wheelchair Aviators and owned a company that made the hand controls which had returned him to flight.
“His wheelchair hasn’t held him back, not one little bit,” Nooe says.
Smith’s spirit is one both Operation PROP and FWI hope to instill in its guests.
“We watch people get on with fear, then come out with smiles on their faces. It’s a real confidence builder,” Nooe says.
Helping Those In Need
Not all passengers climb onboard timidly.
At the March 20–21 Aerofest in Mobile, Ala., host pilots were directing two wounded veterans to somewhat accessible aircraft when one of the women spotted Bill Ross’s 1941 Boeing Stearman PT-17.
“When I saw her, when I saw how excited she was, I was going to get her in the airplane no matter what,” says Ross, a Theodore, Ala., resident. “If I’d needed to rent a crane to hoist her in there, I would’ve done it.”
Instead, he and five ground crew volunteers worked together to help her manage the 7-foot climb into the U.S. Army Air Corps biplane that once served as a training vehicle for the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.
“Some people deer hunt. Some people fish. Some people ski. We all have our hobbies. Mine has been aviation since I was young,” Ross says. “Being a proud keeper of that plane for now, I want as many people to experience that plane as possible.”
Operation PROP has expanded services to provide skydiving opportunities for wheelchair users as well.
“We’ve had three wheelchair users jumping out of perfectly good airplanes,” Nooe says. “We like the idea of people with disabilities doing everything anyone else can do.”
One of Nooe’s greatest challenges, however, has been getting hand controls into aircraft. While looking into acquiring a set to donate to a local flight school, he learned they were no longer being manufactured.
“It’s such a big thing. There’s a number of people waiting to get these,” Nooe says. “I met a guy in Louisiana who took a bullet in the neck in Iraq. He’s technically quadriplegic. He got his light sport pilot recreational license, but if he could get a set of hand controls, he could get certified to be a flight instructor and commercial pilot.”
In New York, Nooe met a man who was on a ground unit operation in Afghanistan and had an improvised explosive device take both of the man’s legs. Now, he’s a lawyer, Nooe says, and is scheduled for flight school once hand controls are available.
Helping those with SCI
Recently, Operation PROP acquired the rights to manufacture Union hand controls so people with lower spinal-cord injuries can earn their pilot’s license.
“There’s not enough demand for it to be a profitable venture, but you may give 30, 40, 50 people a year their life back,” Nooe says.
FWI is slated to be on hand for the Global Abilities Philadelphia Rec Fest on Sept. 19 and Baltimore Rec Fest on Oct. 3.
Both organizations always welcome volunteers at all levels: pilots, instructors, event organizers, grant writers, able-bodied volunteers to serve as ground crew, benefactors and those proficient in office or publicity skills. Operation PROP would like to network with flying clubs, civic groups, airports and other interested parties across the country to duplicate their traditionally four-hour event.
“Our overall goal is to show people with disabilities that there are many things they can do that they probably haven’t thought about,” Nooe says. “Flying is one of those.”