Jim Ryan and Greg Hemingway waited in a Harrison Mills field, watching paragliders descend onto the grass. The pair were preparing for their own paragliding adventure, one that would echo years past when Ryan, then a captain with WestJet, had flown with flight officer Hemingway.
“Just like the old days,” 59-year-old Ryan said, looking up at the paragliders turning in the air above them.
“Well hopefully not exactly like the old days,” Hemingway said, then laughed.
Hemingway was making light fun of Ryan’s landing skills as a pilot, but his statement was true in other ways. It wouldn’t be exactly like the old days, because in the old days Ryan wasn’t paralyzed from the neck down.
Three years ago, at the end of March in 2016, the Chillwack man and his family were on vacation in Maui. Diving under water, he found himself twisted by a wave, driven into the sand and paralyzed. At first unable to speak or breath independently, he spent 10 months recovering in hospital, although he wouldn’t regain movement or feeling in his arms, legs and torso.
Now, Ryan is an advocate for people with disabilities, using his skills as a motivational speaker to make change in his community. In 2018, Ryan received the Courage to Come Back award for his work — and has spent the last three years proving that disabilities don’t limit what a person can do.
Last summer, Ryan had gone sturgeon fishing with well-known advocated Rick Hansen and taken to the water in a sailboat he was able to steer, thanks to the Disabled Sailing Association of B.C.
And on Monday (May 13), he got the chance to finally make a decade-long dream of paragliding come true.
“I had tried about 10 years ago, but it all came apart,” Ryan said. At that time, working as a pilot, he wasn’t able to make the schedule work with his paragliding instructor. But a few months ago, Ryan decided to call up fellow pilot and paragliding enthusiast Hemingway to see if they could make it happen.
To Ryan’s surprise, Hemingway said yes.
“He was kind of excited about that idea and asked me if I could do it,” Hemingway said, standing near the wheelchair-like contraption that Ryan was getting ready to be lowered into for the flight.
“I asked around about getting one of these, so there was a pilot in the community who had one, so he brought it over.”
|Jim Ryan getting ready to be lowered into the gliding chair by his wife Isabelle (centre left). (Grace Kennedy/The Observer)|
The chair, which is built low to the ground and has straps that cover every part of the body, is designed so people who have the ability to move their arms can do a solo glide if they want. But it also has a backpack-like attachment on the back so a more experienced glider like Hemingway can do a tandem flight.
“I’ve done probably about 150 tandems,” Hemingway said.
”I’ve never done one with a paraplegic before,” he added. “So it will be a first for this.”
“Quadriplegic,” Ryan’s wife Isabelle called out.
“I’m the whole ‘plegic,” Ryan added. “I’m not the partial, I’m the whole.”
These sorts of dry jokes were common while Isabelle, Hemingway and Ryan’s care aide spent the better part of half an hour attempting to maneuver Ryan into the chair, get him strapped down and then bring him up the mountain. It wasn’t an easy task, but judging by Ryan’s final flight, it was worth it.
“It is through the phenomenal help of friends and new acquaintances that make this all work,” he said in an email after his flight, noting that four other paragliders came to help bring Ryan up the mountain and help get him seated properly in the gliding buggy once at the top.
“For someone in a wheelchair who misses flying every day, this is one of the incredible experiences that make life worthwhile,” he added.