Jul 30, 2012 1:36 AM by Jacqui Heinrich
He can't walk, but he can fly. One young man earned his wings from the pilot's seat of a helicopter with an invention some thought was impossible.
"I'm paralyzed from the chest down," Trevor Fennig says, hoisting himself into the cockpit with only the strength of his arms. At just seventeen years old, Fennig's life changed forever when a gun accident put a bullet in his spinal cord. He thought his dreams of becoming a pilot were long gone until he met Captain Stewart McQuillan.
"When I designed the system I suppose it was a little selfish. I was doing it for me. I wanted to fly helicopters." A former Royal Airforce pilot, McQuillan became a paraplegic at age twenty-eight when an accident took the use of his legs. Decades later, he's designed a tool to let dreams take flight.
Fennig wears a pneumatic leg brace that McQuillan invented. It moves the pedals of the helicopter via remote control, much like a video game. "It's proportional to your thumb movements, so the speed you move your thumb at is the speed the leg will react," McQuillan explains.
With this invention, the sky's the limit for Fennig, despite his disability. "There will be a lot of people that will tell you, 'You can't fly a helicopter, you're paralyzed'. So it's nice to know that you can really do just about anything, you just have to do it differently," Fennig says over the pilot's microphone, several thousand feet in the air.
It's one of a kind: the only devide in the world approved by the Federal Aviation Administration for paraplegic pilots, and it's right here in Colorado. In a state with so many veterans, it's a game changer. "We've got a lot of guys coming back who want to remain in their chosen professions. With this tool, you can fly EMS, you can do police support, you can do fire suppression. If you're a pilot, if you can fly, you can do it," McQuillan says.
Not only is this device putting wounded warriors back to work, but it is restoring a life many thought would only be a memory. "We've gotten to a point where people in wheelchairs are more accepted than they were in the past. They're not a separate class of individuals," explains McQuillan. "When you see them succeed you get that little, 'Great, I helped. I was a part of that'. I can see him do the things I wish I could have done at his age."
Fennig says without McQuillan and his invention, he might have had a very different future. Instead, he looks forward to a lifetime in the air.
Return Flight, McQuillan's non-prrofit organization, is opening it's wings to others in need. A campus is being built to train other paraplegics in flying, complete with instructors, therapists, and a leg brace factory run by veterans. For more information, click here.