Handiflight - Around The World - 'for inclusion and humanity'

An Around the World flight organised and flown by disabled pilots - Aerobility flier and disabled pilot Alex Krol tells us how he came to be involved and just what a trip of a lifetime it proved to be.

“The subject line of the email read “Around the World Flight”.  I’d like to say I jumped at chance but little did I realise that this email had been sitting in my spam folder for well over 6 months. I’d missed the opportunity to be part of the Handiflight Team – disabled pilots flying 80,000 kilometres around the world, inspiring others and showing what they could really do.  The plane had literally taken off whilst I was still in the Flight Planning Room. I followed their planning closely online, watching as the team came together, totally in awe of the challenge they were about to undertake.


A year later, I was volunteering at a BLESMA flying day down at Aerobility HQ when coincidently the Handiflight team arrived at Blackbushe to train their new recruits.  As well as the main pilots, they had recruited other disabled pilots to join them on certain stretches of their route around the world.  All the slots had been filled, but sensing my enthusiasm, Guillaume took me for a whirl in his CTLS. It was the Ferrari of the skies and I fell in love with that little plane straight away. Some weeks went by, and out of the blue I received another email, entitled “Your mission should you choose to accept”.  A place had opened up and I was offered the chance to join the team when they reached New Zealand.  Bingo, I was in !

 

October 2018 saw the challenge begin as Handiflight set off from Geneva, Switzerland on their 10 month journey.  Their travel through Europe, India and Asia was inspiring and I couldn’t wait to join them.


Boxing Day 2018. My wife broke the news. The worst possible eventuality had actually happened. Mike Lomberg, one of the Handiflight pilots, had a fatal and tragic crash in Thailand.  My heart sank. I’d been following Mike’s Facebook updates for months now and was hanging onto his every word as the Handiflight momentum built.  My thoughts turned immediately to Mike’s family and the rest of the Handiflight Team.

 

The mission stopped, but as time passed, Mike’s family gave their blessing for the trip to continue.  The challenge had become bigger than first expected and Handiflight resumed to inspire, to challenge and to question the worlds’ perceptions of just what is possible with a disability.

 

My bags were packed and my focus soon turned to that horrendous 27 hours cooped up in cattle class that I needed to get through before the fun could begin. Arriving in Auckland I was dazed, hungry and my ankles were literally the size of balloons. If I could feel them, they would be yelling rude words at me.  I learned lesson number one – don’t attempt a flight to New Zealand in one long go.

 

Obviously a trip around the world takes incredible planning, and a great network of friends and supporters.  New Zealand gave me a warm welcome, and it was an honour to meet so many other disabled pilots.  My first host, Barry Cardno, let me sleep off the jet-lag before offering to fly me North to Kerikeri where I met up with the Handiflight crew. It still amazes me how resilient the community of disabled pilots are.  Without a second thought, Barry and I managed to push back his C172, load all the kit (including to two wheelchairs) and casually take off from our private farm strip without a whisper of assistance from the able bodied.

 

Arriving in Kerikeri, Daniel looked more than pleased to see us. I made it known I wasn’t planning on being a tourist, I was there to be a pilot: to make the decisions, to plan the flights and make those all important weather calls.  And boy did they work this Brit hard.

 

Everything was hard work. The flying was hard, the planning was relentless and trying to make those command decisions on the flight deck in French was an almost-impossible task. But we did it.  The universal language of “pilot speak” had saved the day.  To others it would have looked like a couple of European blokes waving arms, pointing at clouds and thrashing a variety of aviation maps around.  But, we made it work and New Zealand delivered more than I thought possible.  It provided the most scenic and majestic flying I will ever encounter as a pilot. 

 

On the ground, we were generously supported by The Lions Club International New Zealand. Our plan was always to fly early morning to give us time to meet our local contacts, learn a little about the places we were visiting, and sort out the all important accommodation.  Between myself and my three French-speaking team mates, we navigated our way through a variety New Zealand’s accessible AirBnBs.  Flashbacks of my backpacking days – would each night be spent in a ‘castle’ or something a little more ‘special’? Luckily we met some amazing people who hosted us well and were amazed by what we were trying to achieve.  It was a little surreal to sit with Ken and Judith in their living room, watching ourselves on prime time NZ TV news!

 

Along the way we had the chance to speak about our journey to the patients at Christchurch Spinal Unit and The Lions Club branch at Taieri.  This gave us the opportunity to reflect on how far we had come as a team and share some inspiration.

 

My time with Handflight was incredible.  The flying provided unique experiences and improved my confidence and abilities in planning, decision-making and working as part of a team.  The experience and memories will be with me for years to come, and I will be eternally grateful to the team who gave me this opportunity.    

 

Now I’m back home enjoying family life again, I reflect on Handiflight.  Above all, for me, it was all about empowerment. To empower me as a disabled pilot, to spread the word to an international audience, and to prove just what’s possible with a positive mind set.

Follow the rest of their journey at www.handiflight.com

In memory of Mike Lomberg

My Mission :

Auckland to Kerikeri

Kerikeri to Ardmore

Ardmore to Tauranga

Tauranga to Omaka

Omaka to Rangiora

Rangiora to Taieri

Taieri to Wanaka”


Laura Neaves