Southern California Soaring Academy – “Walking On Air In the USA”


CalPilots Editor’s Note: Aviation doesn’t get much positive press even though it is frequently used to accomplish wonderful programs. Read about what the Southern California Soaring Academy is doing to help our wounded Veterans.

This is the You Tube video of the program I am working on with Southern California Soaring Academy that provides free flying days for our wounded servicemen and veterans. We have the capability to teach those without use of their legs to fly an aircraft. For the entire story read the article below


“Walking On Air In the USA”

Southern California Soaring Academy

ChrisChris Mannion

Gliders, also called “sailplanes,” are full-sized single or multi-passenger aircraft without motors but with full flight controls, radio communications, aeronautical instruments and landing gear, capable of staying aloft for hours using convective thermal lift. This form of aviation is called “soaring” and can be a liberating and once-in-a-lifetime thrill. Soaring is both a sport, and a lead-in to other forms of aviation. Southern California Soaring Academy (SCSA), a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit glider flight school located in the high desert of Los Angeles County, CA offers a unique opportunity to wounded service members and Veterans to spend a day at the airfield, take a glider flight and, if so inclined, continue their flight training with the goal of learning to solo and earning an FAA private pilot license.    

Recreation’s purpose is not to kill time, but to make life; not to keep a person occupied, but to keep them refreshed; not to offer an escape from life, but to provide a discovery. Yet, for wounded service members and veterans, the simple joy of recreation is eclipsed by the stress and the daunting challenges of recovering from serious wounds, frequent financial stress, and the wrenching choices these young people must now face. Every American safe at home enjoys the liberty of re-creating from the stresses of everyday life because the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform who put themselves in harm’s way each and every day. Our way of saying “thanks” to these many brave young men and women is to provide a simple day of respite from the stresses and a chance to “re-create” in a truly memorable way.

The SCSA flying program is unique in the United States and takes its cue from the highly successful British Army/Royal Air Force program called “Battle Back” and similar adventure programs that are used to build confidence, empower and enable seriously wounded and disabled service members and Veterans. Through these programs, many wounded service members and Veterans have learned to fly solo in specially adapted gliders despite wounds that cause loss of one or both lower extremities.

Program participants are patients from uniformed service hospitals and VA medical centers, along with their recreational therapy staff. Patients are invited to bring a spouse or family member to attend in recognition of the vital role families play in the treatment and rehabilitation of service members and Veterans. The day begins with a “pilots meeting” and brief orientation for all, after which patients are matched with FAA certified instructors to take a glider flight ranging from 30-minutes to one hour or more. During the flight, instructors demonstrate maneuvers and show the patients how to fly the aircraft. For the bold, there are aerobatic flights later in the day. Patients mix with the mostly volunteer staff throughout the day and a big barbecue lunch is one of the day’s highlights during which patients share stories of their flying exploits. One patient, a recently wounded Iraqi Veteran, reported: “This is the most alive I’ve felt since I was wounded.” One recreational therapist working with wounded Veterans writes: “This type of stuff is exactly what our returning men are needing… They are in search for that adrenalin rush while remaining in a safe environment.” After each event patients are given data storage devices to take home with them with pictures and video capturing their glider flight.

SCSA is committed to the simple principle of honoring those who have served by “giving back to those who have given the most.” SCSA self-funds its patient flying days through donations and the support of many volunteers. No distinction is made between Active-Duty or Veteran, Guard or Reserve. Currently the participants are affiliated with a Uniformed Service Hospital or VA Medical Center for ease of transportation logistics, medical clearance, and coordination. SCSA’s “wounded flying” program is currently partnered with Armed Forces YMCA and Naval Medical Center, San Diego CA and VA Medical Center, Los Angeles California. SCSA is in preliminary discussions with UCLA’s Operation Mend to explore the possibility of offering a flying day as a respite for patients undergoing treatment at UCLA for burn injuries.

It has been our privilege as volunteers to associate with and be inspired by these brave young men and women for a day, and it is a truly humbling experience. Many retired military from all service branches and representing WWII, Korea and Vietnam Eras are currently part of the SCSA volunteer base.

Learning to fly solo in an aircraft (i.e., pre-flight, take off, navigate back to the airfield, enter the pattern and land…alone) is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for every pilot, and no less so for a young person struggling to come to terms with the severity of their wounds. In January, 2012 SCSA will take delivery of two new ASK-21 two-place, high-performance gliders equipped with hand controls to actuate the rudder foot pedals, thus enabling a person to fly the aircraft even if they lack use of their legs. SCSA will make scholarships available to enable service members and Veterans to undertake ground training and flight training and advance toward the goal of soloing, and beyond. The acquisition of the modified aircraft will constitute a “first” in the United States as a fleet of three aircraft specially built to enable those without use of their legs to control and fly the aircraft. Notably, SCSA instructors have flown numerous flights of several hundred miles duration with one SCSA student who is paraplegic.

The SCSA program can be replicated in many regions of the United States where VA or Uniformed Service hospitals are located within reasonable distance of a glider field. Soaring is by nature a group activity due to the necessity for ground handling personnel, a tow aircraft and pilot, and ground safety supervisors. Thus, the prevalent operational model for soaring in the United States is that of the aeronautical “club” with club-owned aircraft, large memberships and FAA certified instructors among the membership. Virtually all glider clubs in the US are non-profit educational organizations with existing affiliations to such groups as Boy Scouts, Civil Air Patrol and other local organizations.   Glider clubs are in the business of teaching and training new glider pilots. The current “club” model lends itself well to the possibility of expanding their training programs to active duty and Veteran patients.

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