The second psychological hurdle is landing, a phenomenon called ground fright." Up high, the plane seems to move smoothly and slowly, but as it gets lower and the runway comes up closer, all movement seems to speed up, the brain starts screaming, I'm falling!" and you open the throttle to get back up high where it feels safe.
Thomas, too, made a couple of worried passes, then touched down to a textbook-perfect landing. The chute collapsed behind her as Glebe signaled for her to hit the kill switch. Her smile eclipsed the desert light. She beamed radiantly. Glebe bent over to shout a smart-assed congratulations over the whine of the dying engine. She punched him on the arm.
ON A MARCH EVENING, we were pacing the reservation airstrip, hoping the winds would die down before the sun set. Glebe and his girlfriend, Marty, were backing Glebe's plane off the bed of his pickup truck.
A tiny stuffed animal, a furry brown monkey, was slammed under his truck's hood so that only the head, neck and one arm stuck out. Flying desert monkeys," Glebe deadpanned when he saw me looking at it. Damned things are everywhere. Get stuck in the truck's grille, clog up the air conditioning. ... "
Thomas was sitting next to her van, exasperated, partly because it was too wild to fly, partly because Kai Staats and a friend had taken it upon themselves, despite her protests, to disassemble one of her chair's wheels that they thought was off-center. They put the wheelchair up on blocks with Thomas still in it and, to support the axle, used a can of meatless hot dogs they'd found in the back of Glebe's truck.
Everyone sensed the sudden gust of wind before we actually felt it, and we ran for Glebe's plane, which was on the runway with the chute spread out. Three of us jumped on the frame to hold it down while Staats and Glebe squashed the billowing cloth before it could lift the plane and hurl it into the bushes.
This was a new parachute that Glebe hoped would be large enough to lift himself and a passenger. His trial-run pigeon was a mustachioed good old boy of the Jimmy Buffett model, a friend named Dale. When the air settled a bit, the two of them took off, but with the extra weight there was not enough lift. For 20 minutes, the plane skimmed the tops of the bushes until Glebe wobbled in for a landing. Dale jumped out and with great ceremony kissed the gravelly ground.
Thomas drove home. Glebe stayed to tinker with the new chute, and finally decided that the weight of the street tires and the auxiliary parachute were keeping it down. He'd tinker some more.
Glebe likes to say his design talents are genetic. He has absolutely no engineering background and only went to college for one week, until his first English-class assignment sent him scurrying for woodworking school. Now he has his own shop, a handful of employees and a profitable patent on a display easel he markets to art galleries. His plane hangs from the ceiling at the back of the shop, which gives it the look of a poor man's Smithsonian. He lives in the windowless office at the other end, which is divided in half by a wall, with a desk, refrigerator and hot plate on one side and a water bed on the other.
Glebe grew up in suburban Philadelphia in a neighborhood near a military air base. His first flying machine was a hang glider he made of polyethylene and duct tape from plans he saw in a magazine when he was 12 or 13. Fortunately, it didn't work, because it would have fallen apart in the air.
He eventually did learn to hang-glide, and when he got bored with it, he started renting Paraplanes. Shortly after rigging Thomas' plane, he was brainstorming with Dan Bunn, a Paraplane dealer in Black Canyon City, about the need for a two-seat trainer. Because powered parachutes are so small, you have to solo on your first flight. He showed up the next weekend with it," Bunn recalled. He must have worked day and night." And, in fact, it did fly with two people in it. He took his mother up and any friend who'd go.
Then Glebe told Bunn he'd like to make the plane street legal. Bunn didn't think he'd get it past the Department of Motor Vehicles. Greg," he said, you're going to wig those people out. You won't be able to do it." Glebe called a week later. Won't be able to, Dan?" was all he said. Greg's a tremendous engineer," Bunn concludes.
Glebe's mind is in perpetual motion. He'd like to build a plane powered by hydrogen. He's contemplating a remote-control-powered parachute, just in case you wanted to go skydiving by yourself, so you could fly up to 12,000 feet, jump out and then guide the plane in for a landing as you hang in the air. Apparently he's working on it, because in early April he called to tell me he'd signed up for skydiving lessons and did I want to come along so we could fill our pants simultaneously."
A WEEK LATER, I agreed to meet Peggy Thomas at her house and drive her van and her plane's trailer down to the airfield. I got lost in Tempe, and I realized that Thomas may know her way around Venus and Mars, but her Earth directions stink.
Thomas was in a major funk, didn't want to fly, didn't want to be interviewed.
I'm sick and tired of people walking up to me and talking to me like they know me. I'm sick of them fussing over Moose," she started, and then went on to say she was sick of being stuck in the chair in plain sight. She worried that a magazine article would give the impression that it's not so bad to be handicapped. I don't want anyone to think it's fun to be in a wheelchair," she said, her voice full of emotion. She doesn't want anyone to feel better that gimps," as she calls herself, can fly planes, doesn't want them to think she's making a statement of self-sufficiency or courage.
I'm not brave at all," she said. I'm only doing what I have to to maintain my sanity." We drank a beer to calm down and then headed out to the van. She still didn't want to fly. But I did.
Glebe was waiting for us on the runway, and I had hoped to go up with him, but he still didn't think the new chute would hold us both. You're on your own," he said.
We taxied up and down the runway together so that I could get a feel for the chute overhead and for the steering, which on the ground is tenuously controlled by the joystick. Then he wired me into the radio, strapped me in for good and jogged down the runway to give me a go-ahead wave.
As soon as the chute was up and I was certain it wasn't tangled, Glebe told me to open the throttle. His voice was crackly and anxious over the headphones. I twisted the throttle handle as far as it would go, and the speeding plane rattled and shook so much it blurred my vision.
It took a moment to realize I was already in the air-the ride was suddenly smooth. In seconds Glebe was a tiny dot on the desert and a static-tinged voice in the earphones. Turn right," he was shouting. I pushed on the right foot lever that pulled the parachute lines. The plane turned gently.
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Hard right, you pansy-ass," he yelled. The resistance against my foot was startling, and I better appreciated the hydraulics on Peggy's machine. I pushed on my knee with my hand to get the lever all the way out, and the plane circled higher.
Off to the north, the DC-3 hangar seemed suddenly near, and for the first time I noticed the line of rusted plane fuselages laid side by side, their wings torn off. It was a dissociated omen, unreal, and as I pondered I suddenly realized I was only ten feet off the ground, about to make an impression on the bushes, and I had a far-off thought to squeeze the throttle and to get back up high. Glebe was still shouting into the radio, but I couldn't make out a word until the signal suddenly cleared.
Pul-eeeeease, head the plane toward me," he was begging. I dutifully swung around. Thank you," he sighed emphatically. I lined up with the runway and backed off the throttle, rocking in, playing with the chute. The plane hit the ground with a gentle rolling plop.
Glebe ran toward me, and when he caught his breath, he gave me a final flight lesson. If this were a fixed-wing ultralight, you'd be dead, bub," he scolded. I killed the screaming engine, but it rang in my ears all the way back to town.