Above It All : Annual Eagle Flight Helps Gives Disabled a New Perspective

Before takeoff on his first small-plane flight Saturday, 6-year-old Richard Grasse looked out at the single-engine airplanes lined up on the runway and said, "I don't think they order dinner on these planes."

Richard was one of about 400 physically and developmentally disabled children and adults who got free 15-minute plane rides Saturday at Fullerton Municipal Airport.

Their rides were part of Eagle Flight, an annual event sponsored by the city of Fullerton, International Wheelchair Aviators and about a dozen other organizations. The idea is to give disabled people what often is their first ride in an airplane, organizer Beverly Guido-Deutsch said.

Guido-Deutsch, 35, began the Eagle Flight project in 1981, the International Year of the Disabled. It grew from its modest beginings to the all-day event it was Saturday, when more than 100 volunteers, clowns, jugglers and musicians were on hand.

After waiting his turn, Richard, a kindergartner at John O. Tynes Elementary School in Placentia, clutched his blue balloon and walked onto the taxiway. Richard, who has cerebral palsy, was helped by a volunteer to climb over the wing and into the cockpit of Bill Blackwood's Cherokee 180.

Blackwood, 67, of Escondido, is secretary of International Wheelchair Aviators. He was one of about 25 pilots, both wheelchair-bound and ambulatory, who provided the airplanes and fuel for the rides.

"Eagle Three-Charlie, ready for takeoff," co-pilot John Earle radioed to the tower. After a short wait behind five other planes, Blackwood steered onto the runway and hit the throttle. "And away we go," he said.

The engine speed soon reached 65 m.p.h. and the plane was airborne heading toward Buena Park.

"I hope the engine doesn't quit," Richard said as they were ascending over the Santa Ana Freeway. Flying in a small plane feels different, he said. "Louder too."

The plane circled counterclockwise at 1,500 feet over Buena Park, Anaheim and Fullerton. As Blackwood guided the craft over Knott's Berry Farm, Disneyland and Anaheim Stadium, Richard propped himself up in his seat to see past the left wing.

"I haven't seen Disneyland from the sky before," he said as the plane few over Harbor Boulevard. "Can I see Magic Mountain?"

Fifteen minutes later, the plane was slowing, making its descent toward the airport. Richard's sole comment as the wheels struck the runway: "Whoa!" Earle turned in his seat and asked, "You liked that, Richard?" Richard smiled and nodded.

Back on the ground and back with his parents, Richard said he was not too certain that he wanted to go up again. Not that the flight scared him, he said, but "it's funner to go to a carnival and stay on the ground," he said.

Richard's flight was Blackwood's second of the day. He probably would take five or six more groups up before the event ended, he said.

"It's a chance to help out some people who would never fly if we didn't do this," Blackwood said. "You give somebody a break who would normally not get it."

The International Wheelchair Aviators, a fraternal organization whose purpose is to encourage the physically handicapped to fly, provides about five planes and pilots for Eagle Flight, Blackwood said.

"It's probably easier for us in wheelchairs to fly these people than other pilots because we can recognize some of the problems these kids face."

Many of his passengers have had severe mental handicaps, he said, so he doesn't hear many thank yous. "But you can tell by their eyes that they liked it," he said. "It makes you feel better at the end of the day."

Also helping Saturday were Marines from the Tustin Marine Corps Air Station, employees of Beckman Instruments Inc. and members of the Civil Air Patrol, the Fullerton Sunrise Rotary and the Fullerton Radio clubs.

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