Gliding High

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News May 2013

Adaptive hand controls and high-tech instruments allow paraplegics to enjoy soaring high above Southern California.

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The San Gabriel Mountains in the Mojave Desert of Southern California have nearly perfect conditions for flying a glider, explains Southern California Soaring Academy instructor Dale Masters.

“This is my religion,” Masters says with a smile, “and this countryside is my paradise.”

Located in Llano, Calif., about 75 miles from Los Angeles, the academy has two gliders that can be piloted by paraplegics. The Schleicher ASK-21 gliders are fitted with adaptive hand controls and high-tech instrumentation. The hand controls allow someone without use of his or her legs to have full control of the glider.

Flying a glider means soaring without an engine, and that requires some lessons on the wind, including updrafts, waves and thermals. Following a quick class, it’s time to fly.

"I challenged myself, and I'd do it all over again," says Ashley Lyn Olson about her first glider ride.

Masters sits in the back with his own set of master controls and I’m up front. After a quick recap of the controls, a plane begins towing us to the runway.

In a matter of seconds, the glider is off the ground, still connected to the tow plane by an umbilical cord. Once the glider reaches a certain altitude, the cord is released — and we’re on our own.

When we were on the ground, Masters had asked me when was the last time I was on a roller coaster. Floating in the air, it sure feels like I’m on one. My stomach is doing flips like a trained seal, and my heart rate is starting to race.

I’ve never been so high in the air in such a small object. We enter a thermal (a warm spot that rises in a circular fashion) and begin spiraling upward. This doesn’t improve the condition of my stomach.

I feel like I’m on the teacups ride at Disneyland and want to get off. I’m getting nauseous. I guess the expression on my face and body language reflects this, because Masters decides to switch things up and get out of the thermal.

Now we’re just sailing. My stomach is still flipping but no longer nauseous. It feels hot inside the glider, which I figure is because the sun’s rays are intensified as they pass through the plane’s glass dome. It’s clear to me now why the crew made sure sunscreen was worn. I feel sweat dripping down and open up a small window to let the warm air burst inside.

On a clear day, which is almost always the case, you can clearly see the Pacific Ocean and Catalina Island. The glider picks up speed as we dive toward the mountains and then, with a gentle pull of the joystick, we catch a wave uplift that takes us higher than we were before.

Soaring over the mountain peaks is astounding. Then I see a hawk and get really excited. Here I am flying without an engine, soaring like a bird.

Masters asks if I want to control the plane. I completely forgot there were hand controls to operate the glider. I’m enjoying my time just being a passenger.

My body is a little shaky, my hands are clammy and I’m feeling lightheaded. These are signs my blood pressure is high, so I deny the offer for now. I was hoping my body would calm down and I would feel up to the challenge later.

However, my physical condition doesn’t change, and I’m very aware of my breath. My body is freaking out, possibly altitude sickness, and there is nothing I can tell myself to make it go away.

Masters pulls us out of the mountains and into the desert where we can just cruise smoothly.

I’m disappointed that my body is reacting this way, but it’s something I’ve learned to not ignore.

“I want to try flying it,” I say with virtually my last gasp of enthusiasm. If I don’t try I know I will regret it, so I push through and for about ten minutes I’m a pilot. I want to fly longer, do acrobatics and more, but my body urges me to stop.

Masters and I agree to head back. As we land, the glider plane gets real close to the ground, then ascends a little and finally touches ground. It was really smooth.  

It’s not uncommon to get altitude sickness when flying a glider, but most people don’t. Despite the fact I wasn’t feeling tiptop after a few minutes of being in the air, it was a blast. I challenged myself, and I’d do it all over again.

For more information on Southern California Soaring Academy, visit

To read Ashley Lyn Olson’s full review of her glider flight or for more information, visit  


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