By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
GREG GLEBE'S airplane looks more like a dune buggy than an aircraft, a three-wheeled erector set of neon-green pipe, six feet tall and ten feet long, with a back-mounted fan you'd see on an Everglades airboat, and all of it hung from a parachute. He built it out of scratch. Technically, it's classified as an ultralight." Specifically it's called a powered parachute," the most low-tech form of aviation there is, and Glebe, 31, is a low-tech, seat-of-his-pants genius. I met him at his shop on Broadway, and when I walked in his back door he was pulling on coveralls and a shiny black motorcycle helmet, his face pinched with intensity behind Teddy Roosevelt wire-rimmed glasses and a red mustache. I had thought we'd drive to the airfield in one car. He said, Follow me, I'll be the guy in the plane."
He edged the dune-buggy airplane recklessly into the raging traffic of Broadway, cranked the throttle and rocketed eastward with the whiff and the whine of a snowmobile, which is where the aircraft gets its engine. Heads snapped around on the sidewalks as he droned by. When he reached 40th Street, a turn signal warned me he was turning right, then the right rear tire seemed to hang motionless for an instant before pivoting suddenly and yanking the entire vehicle into a slingshot, 90-degree turn that reminded me of a Roadrunner" cartoon.
There are perhaps a dozen powered parachutes in the state. Glebe's is the only one that is street legal." He added heavy-duty tires, a transmission to the rear wheels, turn signals, a headlight and a license plate that reads LND AIR" so he could drive it on the roads.
The reason I did it was so I can fly when and where I want," he told me later, and if I don't like the air I'm flying in, I can land and drive." I was about to witness as much.
Glebe swerved off 40th Street onto a dirt road between an orange grove and an open field, stopped and jumped out.
You got a pen?" he snorted when I parked my own car to see what was wrong. Write this down: Take I-10 south to Chandler Road, follow that forever until you see the big chemical tanks and turn right, then turn right again after the cows. ... Don't worry, you'll smell 'em. Now you're off the paved roads and on the Indian reservation. Turn left at the `T' and drive onto the biggest runway you see. You can't miss it." He was flinging handfuls of parachute cloth out of a gym bag strapped to the top of his vehicle as he spoke. I fly about 38 miles per hour, you've got the traffic," he said. It will be an interesting scientific experiment-low-tech-to see who gets there first."
He quickly spread all that nylon on the ground, strapped himself into the seat, revved up and bounced along the dirt road. The chute filled at once, and as soon as it was hovering above him, the engine screamed and the whole contraption lifted from terra firma, suddenly, like Marty McFly's car in Back to the Future. It banked to the left and spiraled heavenward. And then it was gone!
MEMORIAL AIRFIELD, on the Gila River Indian Reservation, is of World War II vintage, mostly deserted. Its wide macadam runways race toward the vanishing point, broken into gravel by time and weather and the desert's willful efforts to claim them back. Over the head-high greasewood bushes, you can barely see the brightly painted tails of some ancient propeller airliners parked at a Quonset hangar nearby. Glebe likes to fly there, though he's not sure it's entirely legal.
He was backing another ultralight from a trailer behind a van with handicapped plates. Next to it, Peggy Thomas sat in her motorized wheelchair. Peggy has long auburn hair and sad gray eyes beneath Brooke Shields brows; she's quadriplegic, and only has use of about 25 percent of the muscles in her arms, her deltoids and biceps, but it's enough for her to fly the plane that Glebe rigged for her. Although there are quadriplegics who fly other sorts of aircraft, Thomas is the only quad to fly a powered parachute, and she is probably the most severely handicapped of any of them.
It's easier than driving my van," she told me. In fact, it has similar hand controls, padded rods mounted at the three corners of a triangular piece of metal; her hand and wrist fit between them so she can push and pull without using fingers.
Ordinarily, in the air her plane would be steered with the feet like a Flexible Flyer sled; cables run from the footrest and pull the leading edge of the chute in whichever direction you want it to go. Glebe rigged hers with hydraulic cylinders to compensate for her lack of strength and mobility.
Now it was time for her to fly. Glebe carried her from her wheelchair like a bridegroom crossing the threshold and set her in the seat of her plane. Kai Staats, a pleasant young man with a short ponytail and a perpetual bandanna that he wears Aunt Jemima-style, fussed with the parachute lines. Staats is an industrial-design student at ASU and he helped Glebe adapt Thomas' plane. This is aviation-quality Velcro," he joked as he strapped her legs to the cockpit.