By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Glebe fitted a helmet with earphones over her head and tested the transmission to a walkie-talkie he held in his hand so that he could talk with her while she was in the air. She taxied slowly down the runway for 100 yards. The chute dragged for an instant, then filled, and she floated slowly above the desert, looking for all the world like ET's bicycle as she made slow circles past an outhouse-door sliver of moon.
She hovered for 20 minutes, then began her descent, but misjudged the runway and coasted gently down onto a sandspit between the greasewood. We raced over to her plane. She was sitting quietly, a tranquil look on her face.
It makes me feel so free!" she said breathily.
PEGGY THOMAS is a research assistant in the Department of Planetary Geology at ASU. She compares photographs of Mars to scientists' data for a mapping project, and she measures wind streaks on photographs of Venus to help determine the makeup of that planet's atmosphere.
On the afternoon I visited her at work, she had photographs spread over a table, and I asked if she could tell one planet from the other just by looking at them. Welllll," she began with girlish exasperation as she nudged a couple toward me, this is an actual photograph, and this is a radar image to give surface references in shades of black and white. The surfaces are quite different. But you'll notice that the photos are also labeled, and that's mostly how I tell."
Her big Labrador retriever, Moose, lounged doggily on the floor behind her chair, ready to be in the way at any moment. Moose has gray chin hairs that betray his 6 years and an expression that suggests he has good sense. Mostly he wants to play ball, but he's trained as Peggy's valet. He carries things in a saddlebag backpack. He opens doors for her, pushes elevator buttons (though he doesn't know up from down), gets her lunch out of the refrigerator without eating it and helps pull her back into bed if she falls out at night.
I tried to teach him to answer the phone," Thomas said, but he kept knocking it over."
Behind her on a table was a two-foot-square blowup that resembled the other extraterrestrial photographs. Is that a picture of Mars, too?" I asked of another worker in the room.
Close," she answered. That's an aerial shot of Los Angeles."
Thomas, 31, grew up in Scottsdale, went to Northern Arizona University and, when she graduated, got a job with the U.S. Geological Survey in Philipsburg, Montana. She was learning to rock-climb and hang-glide, activities her wimpy friends told her would break her neck.
Ironically, that's not how it happened to her. She was on the job, driving a Dodge Ram truck on a Montana back road, and when she reached over to close the air vent on the passenger side of the cab, the truck rolled so fast that all she had time to do was say, Oh shit," and then only to herself.
She awoke to paramedics working over her; by some miracle, one of them had been driving behind her when her truck launched. She wasn't in pain, didn't yet realize she was paralyzed and she joked with the EMTs who begged her to stay awake. She had shattered the fifth and sixth vertebrae in her neck; her spinal cord was severely bruised.
When she came out of surgery, I was just glad to be alive," she says. I thought I was smart, I could figure it out. It would be mind over matter." She felt sure she would walk again, but it took six months to gather enough strength to sit up, longer to learn to write, to drive. She has little feeling from the chest down and no control over the muscles in that part of her body, though they are not damaged. It's been ten years, and she sometimes thinks, Isn't time up yet?" She says now, I would do anything to get out of this chair!┬«MDNM┬»" Hence the plane.
SHE SAW IT in a magazine, a powered parachute called a Paraplane." It was simple. You could fold it up in the trunk of a car. You didn't need a license to fly it. It was safe. Unlike a conventional fixed-wing ultralight plane, you couldn't stall it unless you deliberately pulled in one side of the chute far enough to collapse it, and, unlike a fixed-wing plane, if the engine died, you wouldn't. Instead, you would simply coast to a gentle landing under the chute's canopy.
She tracked down paraplegic pilots and went up with them to see how they flew, and thought she could do it, too.
However, she couldn't find a mechanic who would risk the legal liability of adapting the plane for her. Two different pilots" offered to do it, then spent all their time testing" it. They were just flying the damned plane around!" Glebe says. Glebe met Thomas at an airfield north of town a couple of years ago. She was sitting in her chair watching her Paraplane go through its paces. That's my plane up there," she told him. He's going to adapt it for me." She rolled her eyes with mock irony because she no longer thought it would ever get done. Glebe was impressed nonetheless and filed the story away.