Connie Cullen had dreams. Dreams dashed upon the rocks. The same rocks that shattered her spine, leaving her ‘confined’ to her wheelchair. Confined is not a word by which she wished to be defined. Her dream was to be unbound by everything that dragged her down. Unbound by the force of gravity, set free to touch the sky. Quite simply, she had dreams to fly.
Irv and Mary Sobel are an extraordinary loving couple. Irv had one first love however, a love he nurtured from the age of five. As soon as Irv could walk and talk, his favorite topic was his calling to fly. A dream he realized, and excelled at. The F106, dubbed “the world’s fastest plane” Irv had the honor of being the first to fly it after it’s record setting test flight. After his military career, as a commercial pilot he set three world records in 747’s (one beating his own world record). After retiring he took his first glider flight, and was in love with the sport of soaring. With his vast experience, he soloed with only twenty four minutes logged. (He was ready at fourteen, but his instructor wanted him to do a second landing first) He earned his instructor rating CFI-G within two months!
Fate, that force that guides destiny, brought Connie, Irv, and Mary to the mall that fateful day. Irv and Mary had been invited to display a glider, which they did joyfully. Irv was chit chatting away about this flight or that flight, or his favorite planes, while Mary was the first to notice Connie. Connie had rolled right up to the glider’s wing, laying her head on it, arms outstretched, caressing the wing.
Connie was in love. She wasn’t aware Mary was even there till she asked, “have you ever flown before?”
Without lifting her cheek from the smooth, long, sleek airfoil, she turned to look wistfully at Mary. “All my life I dreamed of flying, but I have been stuck in this wheelchair.” She would never know her words would be immortalized.
“Stay right here.” Mary practically commanded. She turned quickly and urgently towards her husband. “Irv, Irv, this woman, she wants to fly. Surely there’s something we can do?” Irv could never say no to Mary’s passions, nor could he ignore his own passion for flight.
They exchanged contact info, with every intention of fulfilling Connie’s dream. Alas, building gliders takes time. Building the first gliders approved for hand controls takes years. (Thanks to Irv’s ingenious deal making, not the last, not by a long shot. Today many offer it as a standard option). Unfortunately, Connie did not have years. By the time the first three historic planes were delivered, she was gone.
I moved with my family to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, when I was ten or eleven. The first day in our new house I remember running out to the back yard screaming “look up, look up there!” The World War One era Stearman biplanes looping, and spinning, and barrel rolling, just for fun. Then there was the soundtrack of my childhood. The drone of the tow planes engine, then the power let off as it began its fast descent to tow the next glider up. This was followed by the circle dance. The silent dance of hawks and gliders alike climbing towards the clouds. Watching the gliders do loops too, that was my serene place. I would lie in the backyard and just watch them.
Within the first year or two living there, we took our first flights. 232’3 are the only gliders that seat three. One in the lap of another in the front seat, pilot in back. This is how I took my first glider flight as a child, in my fathers lap.
When I was fourteen or so, I first moved in with my dear friend and author Phoebe Wilcox. The ‘home’ she lived in would later be immortalized in her first novel. It was a simple cinder block structure with exposed insulation, and was basically one room. Me and her whole family slept on bunk beds, the bed area (can’t call it a bedroom) was separated from the kitchen/bathroom by a piano. The piano was repurposed as storage for tens of thousands of protest flyers. The kitchen though it lacked a wall did have a retractable curtain, transforming it from kitchen to bathroom and shower. The importance of this will soon be revealed.
A couple months later, I moved in with another dear friend, Bird. Bird, aka Lorinda Wright lived with her family, the nearest house to the tiny grass airstrip known as Vansant. I lived in the guesthouse, where her father (also an airline pilot) had an office. It was also home to frosty and feisty. Two very large, completely wild and free, but tame and somewhat domesticated raccoons. We would go to the airport all the time. In that area, it literally was the only thing nearby.
The next half a dozen years I don’t want to get into all the craziness, so let’s skip past the 1980’s and come to a screeching halt on a specific day. March 25th, 1990. Thirty two years ago, next week. It wasn’t the sudden deceleration from skipping over a decade that caused the screech, it was the tires of my brother’s interceptor (motorcycle designed for the racetrack not the street) losing grip on the road after hitting a pothole the size of the lane.
Irony, fate’s twisted cousin may have been playing a practical joke on me. The pothole that smashed my own spine on the rocks was halfway from the house where I lay in the backyard watching the cloud dance, to the airport where I would take my first flight just months later.
Those months were hard months. Painful months. But I survived. It was weeks after I got out of the hospital when my mom informed me about Freedoms Wings, based right out of dear old Vansant! March 25th, life crushing pothole. July 4th, Freedoms Wings picnic and my first time flying, with me at the controls! That was not much time to grieve the loss of my old life before finding joy in my new one.
That day I soared directly above the spot I lost the ability to walk. That day I also met Irv and Mary. Two people who never seemed to stop smiling. “Hello, hello, are you ready to fly?” The couple had a lot to be proud of, but it wasn’t pride they beamed, but pure love and joy. “Wonderful, wonderful, let’s get you strapped in, you will fly with Ray today.” The man sure had a way of getting you excited.
I think dear sweet hearted Mary had told Connie’s story a thousand times before. She tenderly touched my arm and told me almost tearfully her story complete with “All my life I dreamed of flying, but I have been stuck in this wheelchair.” I hadn’t been in my own chair long, but I was minutes away from being unstuck.
Even though I expected to just take a ride, they carefully explained the use of each control and the purpose of every instrument. They taught me the preflight checklist. I was strapped in, the canopy was closed and locked. The tow rope release check was completed. The wing runner leveled the wings when I gave the thumbs up. Ray waggled the rudder, being a quadriplegic himself he used the hand controls. The takeoff roll began down the bumpy grass runway. I must admit, when it was bumpy and bouncy, I felt a twinge of nerves, which disappeared the instant the wheel lost contact with the ground.
“Ohhhh… wow!!!” We were only a foot or two off the ground when I suddenly felt free. There’s nothing like riding on a cushion of air to make you feel lighter. To make your life feel lighter, more free.
The tow was a little bumpy, you could feel everything the air was doing around you. Every bump a new thrill met with either a giggle or ‘wow’. “Ok, there’s three thousand feet, do you want to pull the release or shall I?” From the moment of takeoff, Ray had called out “one hundred feet, we will land in that field. Two hundred feet, it is safe to turn back. Eight hundred feet, we can do an abbreviated pattern. Twelve hundred feet, we can do a full pattern.” Without answering I grabbed the yellow knob and pulled.
The sound of the tow plane letting off power to descend quickly is very different from the cockpit, than the backyard. Up close, following it just two hundred feet behind it had roared. Now, it has fallen silent. Only the whistle of wind over smooth low drag fiberglass. “Oh wow!” I exclaimed, as Ray softly chuckled.
“Put your hand lightly on the controls, follow my control movements. Bank right, rudder right, like this. Watch the yaw string. Keep it straight. There you go, now you have the controls.”
I think I may have mumbled “uhhuh.” I was concentrating too hard on keeping the wings level and the yaw string straight. I even forgot to look around and enjoy the sights.
As we approached the cloud the air got a little rough and the right wing started to lift. “Which wing did you feel lift? Right, right? Let me take the climb then you can take the controls again, you are doing very well.”
I was surprised how steeply the glider banked into the thermal. We started to climb, and we’re joined by other gliders. “There, off our wingtip, see the cul de sac? See the one with the pool? I grew up there!” (We were directly above the now paved over pothole, a fact I did not realize for years after).
Ray climbed till we “kissed the cloud”, as he called it. Till the wingtip scraped the cloud base and the canopy came within reach of the misty edges. Close enough to feel the dampness when reaching out the small window.
Touching the cloud I thought of Connie’s dream. She made it. Even if postmortem, she made it. Her legacy lived on.
I never got to do a loop with Ray, but he taught me other aerobatics. One day, we were in a thermal with a legendary pilot. Ex luftwaffe ace, he taught the entire Libyan Air Force to fly jets. Nowadays he flies a Grob109 touring glider. Not high performance, or especially aerobatic. Ray exclaimed “give me the controls I want to show you something.” We were above him in a thermal, ray threw the bank over hard and dived with full spoilers, trying to get “on his six”. He vanished. Just disappeared out of the sky, despite being only three hundred feet below. He was right where he’d never be seen, on our six, the entire rest of the flight.
My first spin training, Ray said “pull up into a stall, and throw in full right rudder.” He did not tell me what would happen next. Next was a blur, a race between my heart leaping into my throat, my eyes opening wider than ever thought possible, and the house I lived in with Phoebe spinning round and round with our nose pointing straight down, rushing towards me at three hundred feet a second! “Good, now let it spin three times, full opposite rudder, stick forward,” (stick forward? We were already pointed straight down!) Ignoring my instinct I did as instructed. “Let it get to sixty knots and ease out, good..” After resuming straight and level flight, and giving my heart rate a minute to resume a straight and level beat, I wondered what the child me would have thought if I had a dream one day it would be me dancing beneath the clouds.
The following fall, with the autumn foliage in full multi spectrum display, I showed up expecting another lesson. I was in the cockpit and ready to go when Ray pulled up next to me and asked “are you ready to solo?”
I think I mumbled “guess so”, all I know is it lifted off a whole lot sooner two hundred pounds lighter. The first flight was uneventful, only ten minutes longer than if there was no lift. Given the option to go again I was off for a truly memorable flight.
Once again over the pothole of fate. Four golden eagles joined me. Or I joined them. Either way we circled eye to eye. The highest one had been circling off my wingtip, making eye contact. Of course he was out climbing me, and must have spooked. He was maybe fifty feet above me when he folded his wings and dove in a graceful spiral dive. Muscle memory kicked in, remembering the day good ol’ Ray decided to dogfight the fighter pilot. I threw it into a sharp banked dive trying to follow the eagle down.
I remember thinking back to high school. Incidentally, I could see the school across the mile wide lake I swam across with a bee on a raised finger to save him from drowning. On a clear day I could see Philly, NYC Baltimore, Atlantic City, even DC if high enough. (Yes the earth is round and my glider powered by gravity, stop trying to argue with me flat earthers!) Back in high school we read “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” and I think on my second solo flight I may have been channeling some of Jonathan’s spirit. Maybe Connie’s too. I flew fast, faster than was sensible. I pulled some G forces. (Again it’s physics dude, if you start with denial, you will never get it.)
And just playing with the flight envelope.
Like our seagull friend, I got myself in trouble. I got a little low, and a little slow, on a straight in long final. A strong gust carried me over the parking lot. Ray, on the ground, and everyone else panicked. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I didn’t have that option.
A sixty degree bank with a eighteen meter wingspan left just about five feet between wingtip and the ground. That fact had my full attention. I wrestled it back over the runway convincing poor Ray he would witness a cartwheel. A wing over wing dance of death. Somehow I pulled off a nice calm and collected gentle landing and rolled to a stop near where they were waiting.
I learned a lot from those eagles. To be free of spirit. To enjoy both the skill of the climb and the thrill of the dive. Most of all, I learned the value of the balance between the two to make it home alive.
A few years later, Four Owls, if the Seneca tribe, changed my name from Pete Golden, to Soaring Eagle, in honor of the four eagle spirit guides. I may give those wise old birds too much credit. Ray was a hell of a great teacher. RIP Ray Temchus and Connie Cullen. You will be remembered in dreams of cloud base.
Dear Connie; I never got to meet you. But I owe so much to you. We do. Thousands of disabled pilots worldwide do. In 2019, someone unstuck from their wheelchair rose to the ranks of the champions. I like to think your spirit flew with him to victory. He, like me, would have never left the ground without your dream.
Irv turned 87 days ago. His eyesight no longer allows him to fly. His old wingman from his military days however is competing for world glider champion this year, at a young 97. I hope I can keep soaring the rest of my days.
Dreams of cloud base
Circles drawn in misty air
Rise up rise up
Carry me skyward
Dancing in sacred circles
Soar in prayer
To the spirit of air
A feather drifts slowly
A gift from the master
His spirit has joined me
The soul of the eagle
Circling drawing higher
My spirit in elation
Bringing his freedom
Thank you Irv and Mary Sobel for opening your heartwings to the world.
This is the only 100% true story I have written.