They say the desire to be up in the great blue yonder is something you’re born with. If that’s true, then that certainly explains Captain Stewart McQuillan’s lifelong passion for aviation, the world’s first paraplegic to fly a helicopter.
A hardy veteran of the Royal Air Force, McQuillan’s father and grandfather were both pilots and he himself began flying at 11 years old, but he’s much more than just a pilot. He’s also an electrical engineer and the brain behind a groundbreaking device that allows those with paralysis to fly a helicopter (or any other rotary device).
For a fearless story that crosses oceans and endless skies, read on to be inspired by Captain Stewart McQuillan.
Why he’s fearless
It was a crushing blow quite literally – by a Tornado GR1- that brought McQuillan into the world of disability. While checking out an issue, the air brakes failed and before he knew it his spinal cord crushed. At 29 years old and thick into his military career, this was not something he planned for.
When he was in rehab and was told he could no longer fly helicopters, one of his favorite aircraft, he was definitely more than perturbed. Most of us see this kind of thing happen to us right after our injuries. “Ok grreat…one more thing I can’t do.”
While in rehab, one good thing and one bad thing happened to him. The bad – no one thought he could fly. It was 1988 too and no one had heard of a paralyzed pilot before. And the good – after rehab he was offered a Air Force scholarship and learned how to fly single-engine fixed wing aircraft.
Quickly thereafter, King Hussein of Jordan then asked him to begin working on a device that would allow people who are paralyzed to fly helicopters, and thus began the Aeroleg journey.
McQuillan quickly realized he had an opportunity to make flying a helicopter possible for people with paralysis. Inspired by the movie Robocop, McQuillan knew we needed what Robocop wore on the outside his legs to fly safely – an external metal sheath that could be controlled. After months of working on the device, the Aeroleg was born – a $30,000 device marvel.
The way the Aeroleg is made is relatively simple, even though getting it on can be a smidge cumbersome. It only goes on the right leg and it has a separate pneumatic hand control just for the thumb, which is what lets you control the legs, both the ankle and knee; each necessary to fly a helicopter. This is some impressive fine-tuned stuff.
The Aeroleg was actually approved by the FAA back in 2002, but only in the last five years has it been actively used in the disability community. McQuillan decided to team up with partners too to create a disability flight school called Return Flight in Denver, Colorado a couple of years ago after moving to CO from the UK (with his wife Honey in 2010).
They even purchased 150 acre tract of land and began teaching people disabilities (mainly young male paraplegics) how to fly helicopters. Unfortunately however, the flight school is on hold due to financial issues.
With Return Flight on hold, McQuillan is busy helping give Aeroleg a leg up. He’s been making fresh videos, like this one, explaining the Aeroleg in more detail.
A brave spirit that refuses to be grounded, Captain Stewart McQuillan joins the ranks of some of the most important wheelchair-users ever. To invent such a life-changing device and have the no-fear attitude it takes to tackle the intimidating world of flying choppers, now that is something to behold.
Would you fly a helicopter using an Aeroleg?
Watch the videos!