Dylan Helms has a rare disease called Friedreich’s ataxia that affects his nervous system and keeps him from walking. But it didn’t keep him from flying through the clear, blue skies over Missoula Sunday afternoon, launching from Mount Sentinel and landing at Dornblaser Field.
The 17-year-old Big Sky High School student went paragliding as part of a special event put on by Blackbird Paragliding of Missoula in cooperation with a nonprofit group called Project Airtime from Salt Lake City.
“This is an ‘opening day’ of sorts for our new, adaptive chair,” said Casey Bedell who, with his wife Jen, owns and operates Blackbird Paragliding.
The three-wheel adaptive chair — acquired with the help of Project Airtime and through donations on a GoFundMe page — allows people with disabilities to safely hook up, launch, fly and land with a paraglider. With the chair, Blackbird now offers free tandem-paragliding flights for people with disabilities and their families.
“My big thing about why we’re doing this is because when we’re up in the air, it doesn’t matter if you have a disability,” Bedell said. “Up there, we’re all the same.”
Helms sure enjoyed it.
“It’s my new favorite sport,” he said. “It was pretty fun. At one point, I looked down and there was a bird flying below me. We were flying above the bird!”
Abby Jarvie, 26, who has cerebral palsy, said she loved seeing Missoula from the sky. “It blew my mind,” she said. “The take off was awesome, the landing was a little rough, but it was fun. I would do it again.”
Joe Stone, who works for Project Airtime, said “the Missoula skies are now open to everyone, no exclusions.”
In fact, the nonprofit’s motto is: “We take everyone flying. When we say everyone, we mean it. From special needs individuals to those with brain and spinal cord injuries. Individuals with illness, as well as the elderly and veterans. Our co-pilots have one thing in common, they want to fly!”
Project Airtime was founded by Chris Santacroce, 42, of Draper, Utah. About 19 years ago, Santacroce suffered a spinal cord injury which resulted in him spending some time in a wheelchair. Although he fully recovered, he said it gave him a “different view of the world and an improved view of life.”
Since then, he’s devoted much of his life to helping those with disabilities. One of the people he helped was Joe Stone.
On Aug. 13, 2010, Stone, then 25, nearly died after crashing into Mount Jumbo while speed flying, a form of paragliding. The accident left him in a coma for a month, and in the hospital for four months, where he emerged a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down with impairments in both his hands.
A year later, he hand-cycled the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, then later became the first quadriplegic to compete in an Ironman triathlon.
Now he’s paragliding, with an adaptive chair, and helping to encourage, motivate and train others.
“We’re here to help anyone and everyone who wants to try it,” he said, “if they’re ready to do it.”
To learn more about Blackbird Paragliding and Project Airtime, and contribute to the effort, click here.