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Device Helps Paraplegics Learn To Fly In Colorado

By Rachael Plath, Meteorologist, r.plath@krdo.com
Published On: Feb 18 2013 11:35:02 PM CST
Updated On: Feb 18 2013 11:38:52 PM CST

Despite enduring paralyzing injuries, pilots are learning to fly without the use of their legs with the FAA-approved device called the Aero-Leg.

Pilots who are faced with paralyzing injuries were told by doctors that they would never fly again … but that diagnosis has changed with a new device being built in Colorado.

The Federal Aviation Administration approved Aero-Leg was developed by Capt. Stewart McQuillan. 

McQuillan was injured by the air brakes on an RAF Tornado GR1 while serving in the Royal Air Force.

“The first thing you’re told is that you’re never going to walk again; you’re not going to do this.  Everything’s going to change, and if you’re whole life has been centered around flying, be it military or civil, it’s a crushing blow.  It really is,” said McQuillan.

McQuillan spent several years perfecting the device.  The Aero-Leg allows the pilot to move his own legs with the use of pneumatics and a joystick controlled by the thumb.

Derek Langjahr is learning how to fly helicopters using the Aero-Leg, and is one of the first students to do so.  Langjahr was left paralyzed after a snowboarding accident when he was 18 years old.

“A lot of my dreams were somewhat shattered.  I was just in complete chaos for a few years.  I really had no idea what I was going to do.  I was just hoping I was going to be able to work,” said Langjahr.

Langjahr is an avid photographer, and was hoping to pursue a career in aerial photographer, something that seemed impossible, until he learned of McQuillan’s Aero-Leg.

“I ran into the opportunity and there was just no way I could turn it down.  I really was excited from the moment that I realized that I could do it and that there was a device out there that allows paraplegics to fly helicopters.  I thought it would be impossible,” said Langjahr.

Through a program called Return Flight, Langjahr is learning to fly helicopters.  The program will also help Langjahr find a career in flight after his training is complete.  According to the program, pilots who complete the training will be qualified to fly for needs such as law enforcement, medical and fire suppression.

Return Flight is the first course of its kind, and will be opening a larger campus this summer.  The campus hopes to house 250 to 300 students and will be located just outside Denver.

The program will employ the students to build Aero-Legs and maintain equipment at the facility to help offset costs for the students, and will allow the campus to be self-sustaining.

Return Flight is hoping to expand beyond helicopter flight also.  Their vision includes teaching amputees how to operate heavy machinery, providing work and support to injured veterans and more.  To learn more about the program, click here.

Aside from learning valuable skills that will help get the students back to work, McQuillan said he hopes the program will also provide support for those facing the challenges associated with disabilities.

“We’re hoping the campus really plays a big part in their lives because most of us have been through everything that they’re going to experience.  The questions they can’t ask at the hospital, they can ask us because we’ve probably been there, seen it and done it.  That helps, because then they can see ‘well, he made it, she made it, I can make it.’  That’s why we need the campus,” said McQuillan.

The Return Flight campus is scheduled to open this summer, but it is in need of donations and building materials.  To view what this organization is in need of, or to make a donation, visit the Return Flight website.

“The program is so much bigger than that, and it’s cool to be a part of something like that, that is going to help veterans and help other disabled people.  That’s kind of what I really wanted to do since I got hurt,” said Langjahr, who aspires to become a flight instructor with Return Flight.

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