Wheelchair Parasailing – Extreme Sports for People with Disabilities

Parasailing or paragliding is an exhilarating sport where the person straps into a parachute that lifts them up into the air when towed by a vehicle, or when they run off the edge of a steep incline. Once in the air, the person uses handles on either side of the parachute to control speed and direction, such as right or left, as well as upward to catch higher air currents and down to land safely on the ground. Paragliding is a popular vacation activity at seaside resorts because of the spectacular views and adrenaline rush in a reasonably safe environment.

History of Wheelchair Parasailing

In 1992, Jocky Sanderson developed the first paragliding buggy that allowed wheelchair users to ride as passengers flying tandem with able bodied pilots. The buggies were limited in that the wheelchair user could not safely pilot the parasail alone or land.

In 1996, John Crosbie visited Chevron Wheelchair Factory with a new front end design that added a modular third wheel in the front of the chair. It was his hope to develop a wheelchair that would convert to an off-road chair, enabling wheelchair users to easily maneuver on hiking trails. During his visit, he saw another off-road prototype made by Vinnie Ross. Vinnie’s chair had a suspension built into the rear axle for this extreme wheelchair sport.

This suspension system allowed minimal risk of injury to off-road wheelchair users. John, an avid paraglider and friend of Jocky’s, realized that by combining the front end module of his off-road wheelchair with Vinnie’s rear-axle suspension, it would be possible to create an improved flying undercarriage with solo flying potential. With a grant from Chevron, John and Vinnie combined their ideas and created the first prototype of the flying wheelchair.

Flying Wheelchairs

The prototype was designed to be used with standard flying equipment to eliminate any flight safety or insurance issues. The chair is easy to handle by both a dual pilot who stands on the back of the wheelchair secured by straps and by the solo pilot in the wheelchair buggy. The steering mechanism is self-correcting to minimize the effects of drifting on landing so the chair lands without tipping over.

The new modular chair converts to an everyday wheelchair so that solo pilots aren’t left stranded in the landing field and can simply roll away. With minor adaptations, the chair works well in both tow launch situations, like from behind a wheelchair van, or with an able bodied assistant running behind the chair to push it off of a cliff with enough momentum to catch an air current on take off.

The invention of this chair has catapulted paragliding in wheelchairs from a once-in-a-lifetime experience as a passenger, to a worldwide independent extreme sport. Jocky Sanderson now runs a flying school called Jocky Sanderson’s Escape in Keswick, offering student pilot courses for wheelchair users. There are currently three flying wheelchairs with one being owned by a company named Flyability. Flyability loans it to wheelchair users for free who want to experience paragliding. The wait list has a long international roster.

Currently the flying wheelchairs are unavailable for private purchase. However, after the final tests the new chair will fit into any paragliding school with suitable qualified instructors. This will allow wheelchair users to fly under the standard BHPA flying scheme, and could lead to the creation of a new adapted sports craze.