Relearning to fly: device lets paralyzed pilots take flight again

DENVER — They were told they’d never fly again.  But an invention being put to use right here in the metro area could give new hope to military pilots injured at war.

“If they’ve been helicopter pilots with a spinal cord injury, that’s basically their future, gone. But the system we’ve got will allow them to get back in to the cockpit,” said Stewart McQuillan, inventor of the HeliLeg.

It’s a remote control device that straps to the leg of a partially paralyzed pilot, like a prosthetic.  The pilot can then use his hands to control the movements of his legs. Leg movements are crucial to controlling the helicopter’s foot pedals.

The device is already in use at TYJ Global, a helicopter flight training school located at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport.

Trevor Fennig, 20, had dreamed of flying a helicopter his entire life.  But a gun accident a few years back left him a paraplegic. Now, with the help of the HeliLeg, he’s able to move his legs inside the chopper, and he’s training to be a medical helicopter pilot.

“I’m sure most people who are paralyzed think, oh dang, I’m gonna have an office job or whatever, not gonna be able to do a lot of kinds of stuff. Being able to fly helicopters definitely makes things a lot better,” Fennig told FOX 31 Denver.

Necessity was the mother of this invention. McQuillan was a pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force, who broke his spine in an aircraft accident back in 1988.

“You wake up in bed and you think your life is over. You ask ‘how can I do what i did before?’  You can’t,” McQuillan said.

He was told he’d never fly again, that paraplegics can’t be pilots. So he invented the HeliLeg.  The device isn’t cheap. Each HeliLeg costs about $30,000, and has to be custom designed for each individual pilot, just like a prosthetic leg.

Eventually, McQuillan want pilots coming home from war – who’ve been grounded by paralyzing injuries – to be fitted with the HeliLeg too. Veterans who might never take flight again… if not for the unusual invention, that changed everything.

“I mean there’s things they’re never gonna be able to do, but what we can say is you can remain in the industry, there are jobs out there that you can do, as ably as somebody with two functioning legs,” McQuillan said.

To learn more about the HeliLeg, and Return Flight, the local nonprofit charity helping soldiers and others train on the HeliLeg, click here. http://www.returnflight.org/home


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