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.
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.
A few months later, he thought of Peggy when he met another would-be wheelchair aviator at a fly-in, which is a sort of ultralight get-together. He called the local Paraplane dealer and asked about Thomas, got her number, found the plane had never been worked on and offered to do it for her.
Thomas was suspicious because she'd already been through two helpers," and Glebe had no formal mechanical, let alone aviation mechanics, background, just a lot of self-confidence. It was the beginning of a testy relationship.
I found the plane in her backyard in a pile of dust," Glebe recalled. It took me six months to break down her distrust."
They were a study in opposites: You only have to look at our dogs to see how different we are," Thomas says. Indeed, her helper dog, Moose, is a mellow fellow; Glebe's yellow mongrel, Wiley, is a quivering Frisbee-chaser with semaphore ears. Once when Glebe called Wiley, she ran right over the hood of my car rather than going around it. Thomas thinks of Glebe the same way. Every time I see him, I just want to shake him and give him Valium," she says.
Of course, without Glebe's hyperactive genius, she wouldn't be flying. Her suspicions waned when he came to take measurements, fiddled with the hand controls to determine if they should be vertically or horizontally mounted and contrived a seat she knew would work. He neglected his woodworking business and toiled nonstop-400 hours' worth-like a man obsessed.
The tensions came to a head in the spring. They had talked on the telephone, and Thomas sensed Glebe was agitated about something. She drove to see him. He had the look of a dog that had messed on the living-room rug, and he confessed that he had rolled her plane while testing it, but that he'd already replaced the propeller and had repaired the frame damage. She blew up, he blew up. She'd been ripped off already. He'd been working for free.
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On a sunny afternoon in May, he wheeled the completed rig onto a dirt-strip runway near I-17 north of Phoenix. He skipped the preflight briefing with Peggy for fear of talking her out of flying. My anxiety level was about 95 out of a possible 100," he remembers. Thomas was tentative, but when Glebe told her to throttle up, she bounced down the strip, the chute filled and she was airborne.
Now there's a psychology to first flights. You get up high and think, This is great, this is great, this is... 300 frigging feet in the air!" and the panic sets in. Thomas found herself praying, looking down at Glebe on the ground and thinking, You bastard! Why did you let me do this?"
part 1 of 2
TOM SWIFT AND HIS FLYING CAR AERO SMITH ... v4-22-92