TUCKED away in a hangar at Cunderdin airfield, Damien O’Reilly is doing something pretty inspiring – offering those he says are “not conventionally mobile” the chance to fly unassisted.
Damien is the director of SoarAbility, an organisation he developed to offer those with limited capacity to take control of gliding aircraft using modified controls and training methods.
An important part of this process was the construction of a flight simulator, which includes a custom-built ASK21Mi fuselage (the front part of the aircraft) complete with specific hand controls designed for paraplegics, who could not control a regular aircraft due to the foot pedal system which operates the rudder in a conventional airframe.
The simulator uses a program called Condor, which allows the trainee pilot to alter turbulence and weather conditions, and learn to take off, steer and land an aircraft with a control set-up which is identical to the plane they will eventually fly.
In starting SoarAbility, Damien has created the first Australian facility fully dedicated to flight training for paraplegics, with an expansion plan and new hangar in the works.
However, the slick custom set-up has come at a price, with the design and building of the simulator alone costing him around $92,000 in personal funds.
“I’d say the total investment, including the new hangar, will be around $1.5 million,” he said.
Despite the cost Damien has no plans for slowing down, with the ultimate aim of providing universal flight training for people with a range of abilities.
The program’s first student and self-confessed ‘guinea pig’ Chelsey Phillips is certainly benefitting from this generosity, as her training is also fully sponsored by Damien.
Chelsey lost the use of her legs after a car accident in 1998 and had her first session with the simulator back in March last year.
She is now the first person in Western Australia to be using a hand-controlled motor glider and has been up in the air with Damien at least 10 times since her training began.
“One day we were gliding and we followed an eagle, to be able to level with a bird like that, it gives you such a stunning sense of freedom,” she said.
“I want to go solo at some stage but need to get some confidence up before that happens.”
Chelsey is a major advocate for the SoarAbility project, and said she would do all she could to see it become available to others in a similar position.
“Damien has a beautiful vision and I am in awe of him and his work,” she said.
“My intention is to continue supporting SoarAbility and perhaps one day act as a mentor to others who start the program.”