Paris Air Show

Paraplegic Pilot a First for Paris Flying Display

 - June 10, 2015, 10:15 AM
Dorine Bourneton will fly her aerobatics routine in a modified CAP 10.

The wheelchair will stay on the ground. Dorine Bourneton, a long-time champion of the rights of disabled people and a paraplegic herself, expects to be at the controls of a modified Mudry CAP 10 light aerobatic aircraft as part of the flying display here from Friday to Sunday–at the time of writing the performance was subject to the usual show display approval, but if she gets the green light, it will be a first for the Paris Air Show. After having successfully pushed for persons with lower limb disabilities to be able to become commercial pilots, Bourneton’s dream has been to fly at Le Bourget.

In 1991, Bourneton when was a teenager and a member of a flying club, she was a passenger in a light single airplane that crashed in a mountainous area. She survived in dramatic circumstances–seriously injured; the other three occupants died. She had to wait for hours, in cold weather, until rescuers found her. She had lost the use of her legs.

When she was at the hospital, visitors often came with gifts, including books about aviation pioneers. “I found new strength in reading them,” she told AIN. All these aviators–including women–had accidents, but flew again. Bourneton decided she would live for aviation, too, but the other way round. “My pilot life began with a crash so I wanted to make progress during the rest of my life,” she said.

Like her heroes, she broke new ground. The latest advancement was expected to happen last week, with airshow flight director Stéphane Pichené approving her aerobatics routine after having grilled her about aircraft performance, watched her flying and checking her flightpath against the authorized airspace, also known as the “box.”

“I know the box because I flew here in 2011, but not performing aerobatics,” she said. She believes a critical factor will be crosswind. “The CAP 10 is tricky in a crosswind landing and my condition makes it even more difficult,” she said. The stronger the crosswind, the greater the force required to keep the aircraft in the right attitude and on the centerline. Despite dedicated practice, Bourneton does not expect to be able to counter crosswind greater than 12 knots.

Her left hand will operate the control stick, while her right hand will be very busy with the throttle and flaps–and an extra control replacing the rudder pedals. Other special arrangements include fastening her legs with Velcro and attaching her waist to the back of the seat with a lumbar belt. “I find it difficult to maintain a balance because I can’t exert pressure at the seat-cushion level,” she explained. Finally, she has to wear support socks.

Bourneton obtained a six-month medical exemption on April 9. It relates not only to motionless legs, but physiology. “A paraplegic has a lower blood pressure,” she explained; therefore, the test involved flying upside-down, quickly followed by a positive-g pull-out.

Training was mainly at Montluçon-Guéret airport in central France, with the Amicale de Voltige Aérienne club. Her instructor is Romain Vienne, world champion glider aerobatic pilot. “He is very demanding but also admits he had irrational fears when he was a student aerobatic pilot. Hearing this was comforting,” she said.

A major step in Bourneton’s fight for the paraplegics’ rights occurred in 2003, when the French minister of transport signed a decree allowing them to become commercial pilots on single-engine aircraft. This victory came after years of lobbying efforts. The tasks the disabled pilots may perform are limited, though, to surveillance, freight transport, instruction, aerobatics and mountain flying.

Since 2003, seven disabled pilots have obtained commercial licenses; two were pilots who had kept flying after an accident. But Bourneton has not become a commercial pilot herself, yet. After 2003, she found herself at a crossroad in life, her interest for aviation “collapsed”–in her own words–and she pursued other interests. But she stayed away only temporarily, and first soloed in her modified CAP 10 on April 11, 20 years after having obtained her first pilot license.

Despite obstacles, fears and hard work, Bourneton loves the adrenalin and sensations of aerobatics, “I feel like I’m dancing,” she said.