Guest blog post by Bob Vogel
Dan Buchanan. Photo courtesy of Dan Buchanan.
Friends and mentors are priceless. In 1985, while still coming to grips with my spinal cord injury in the rehab hospital, a fellow hang-glider pilot named, Dan Buchanan, who is also a T8 complete para came to visit me. Dan’s visit helped me a great deal, mainly because in between dolling out tidbits of SCI survival wisdom he kept looking out the window. Within a short period of time he said “Man, the weather is looking really good for flying, so I gotta go. I’ll catch you later.” This was the perfect thing to say! The light went on! Dan’s life revolves around flying hang gliders! Paralysis wasn’t even on the radar screen.
Dan helped show me the ropes of thriving with SCI, everything from advice in ordering equipment: “Order the smallest chair you can fit into, and tell your therapist you want a ROHO cushion,” to helping me rig my hang glider and get back in the air. Over time we’ve become close friends and shared many adventures.
As I said, Dan’s life revolves around in flying hang gliders, so much so that in 1989 he left a successful career in mechanical engineering to pursue a path as a professional airshow hang glider pilot.
Dan devoted years into honing his routines, methodically developing, refining, and marketing his airshow performances. These days he is one of the most sought after air-show acts in on the circuit!
One of the many cool things about Dan’s airshow act is that it enables the general public to see beyond a wheelchair. His chair has nothing to do with the act. That is, until the finale.
To get airborne, Dan launches from a moving trailer driving down the runway at 35 mph. Once he is in the air, a winch on the trailer pays out line as Dan steadily tow-climbs to altitude as the trailer is towed down the runway. He has long colorful streamers and smoke from canisters trailing his glider. He has crafted several different routines, from an opening act flying with an American flag while the Star Spangle Banner plays, to night routines complete with lights and bright pyrotechnics.
Dan’s day show is a comedy act where he “mistakenly” launches during the middle of another performers aerobatic routine. The announcer, the other performer and Dan all exchange banter on the PA and “pretend” it is a mistake, but Dan refuses to leave the sky. Soon a police car is on the ground chasing the tow trailer and the aerobatic airplane tries to chase Dan out of the sky by buzzing his hang glider. Dan tries to chase the plane away by shooting special effects rockets and pyrotechnics, his version of a “3rd world warbird impression.” At this point Dan’s altitude is about 1,500 feet and he releases the tow rope and the announcer introduces him. He gently swoops, turns and glides down and rolls to a stop front of the audience.
An aerobatic airplane tries to "chase" Dan Buchanan out of the sky during airshow performance. Photo courtesy of Dan Buchanan.
This is when the announcer explains that Dan is a paraplegic, while overhead a helicopter delivers Dan’s wheelchair which is dangling from a cable. The aerobatic plane lands and tows Dan in his wheelchair over to the crowd where Dan shakes hands, answers questions and signs autographs.
Each year during the airshow season — April through October — Dan’s performances are seen by millions of people around the world as he travels to over 25 cities. To get from show to show requires driving more than 45,000 miles each summer. It is not uncommon for Dan to drive thousands of miles in a single week to get from one show to the next.
In addition to North America, Dan has performed in Australia, Japan, Thailand, El Salvador, The United Arab Emirates, Canada and Mexico — an exhausting travel schedule requiring lots of windshield time as well as sitting on very long commercial flights often across many time zones.
In December, Dan was honored by his peers on the airshow circuit when he received the Art Scholl Award for Showmanship at the International Council of Airshows (ICAS) convention banquet — one of the highest honors an airshow pilot can receive.
Last week I was fortunate enough to catch up with Dan via phone while he was doing a “short” 700-mile commute from North Carolina to Tennessee for his next show.
Bob Vogel (BV): Congratulations on the Art Scholl Award. Did you know it was coming?
Dan Buchanan (DB): No I didn’t. It was a complete surprise and a great honor — also a bit embarrassing. All the other pilots are flying planes, jets and helicopters that cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, and here I am flying a hang glider that cost around six-thousand dollars. But mainly it was a great honor.
BV: So I’m trying to do the math — how old are you and how many years have you been injured?
DB: I’m 56-years-old and this is my 31st year as a para.
BV: Wow! I’m 52 and 27 years post injury. It seems to me having a SCI ages us in dog years, how do you manage to keep healthy, especially with all of the travel, days of driving and overseas flights?
DB: Part of it is I come from the old school rehab where they drummed into you the how to take care of myself. I manage to keep myself thin so I’m not stressing my shoulders. I also do a skin check with a mirror every day. So far, so good.
BV: What kind of cushion are you sitting on these days?
DB: I’m sitting on a ROHO® QUADTRO SELECT® LOW PROFILE®. I love these things, I’ve been sitting on a ROHO ever since I was hurt. I wouldn’t sit on anything else. I’m not sponsored by them. I don’t even get a free cushion. In fact, I paid cash for my last cushion because I was about to head out of the country and didn’t have time to mess with prescriptions and insurance.
And I always make sure my ROHO is under me — on my car seat, on the seat on the airplane, you name it.
BV: So even with all of your travel, no pressure sores?
DB: Nope, I’ve never had a pressure sore. But I’ve dodged a pressure sore bullet. Years ago I got careless and was sitting on a seat without a cushion for a while and got the start of a pressure sore. Fortunately, I caught it during my mirror check the same day. I was on a ROHO HIGH PROFILE® Single Valve at the time…Sure enough it worked, and the area got a little better every day. Within two weeks it was gone.
I learned my lesson and always keep a cushion underneath me. And like I said, I check my skin with a mirror because I can’t afford to miss a show and I don’t ever want to end up on my stomach for a couple months trying to heal a pressure sore.
BV: Thanks Dan! Safe travels!
Thinking back to when Dan first visited me in rehab I remember asking him if he thought there would be a cure for SCI — something I secretly hoped for. He replied. “I don’t think so. But here is the deal, let’s say there is a cure in say 25-years. Project yourself 25-years in the future and think back on what you would have wanted to do. Live an amazing life full of adventure, or mope about waiting for a cure?” I took those words to heart. Here I am 27-adventure-filled-years later. Grateful for good advice from a good friend!
Bob Vogel, 51, is a freelance writer for the ROHO Community blog. He is a dedicated dad, adventure athlete and journalist. Bob is in his 26th year as a T10 complete para. For the past two decades he has written for New Mobility magazine and is now their Senior Correspondent. He often seeks insight and perspective from his 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, and Schatzie, his 9-year-old German Shepherd service dog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of Bob Vogel and do not necessarily reflect the views of The ROHO Group. You can contact Bob Vogel by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.