The Wallaby Ranch

Michelle's Success Story


From Spectator to Aviator

The Success Story of Michelle Cook

By Dennis Pagen
Hanggliding Magazine, October 1995

picture of Michelle ready to fly

Michelle Cook has always been a sportswoman. She competed in gymnastics in high school as well as Tae Kwon Do and horseback riding. But it was in water skiing where she made her mark. She began skiing seriously in 1979 and competed for the first time in 1980. Her event was doubles trick skiing, which is similar to the discipline of doubles figure skating. By 1982 she reached the pinnacle of her sport by winning the outstanding female skier award at the U.S. national competition.
All this was before the accident. Nine years ago Michelle was exercising a friend's horse along a highway. A semi truck spooked the horse into a fence. Michelle was thrown from the horse and landed in a ditch with a broken back. When she regained her senses she found she was immobile from the waist down.
After a period of adjustment her normal cheerful disposition reappeared, and Michelle resigned herself to a life on the sidelines. But hang gliding has changed all that. This change began when a friend, Hank Amos, who skis on the Bud Light tour, invited her to accompany him to Wallaby Ranch in Orlando, Florida. At the Ranch, Malcolm Jones, a man who specializes in possibilities, asked Michelle if she'd like a tandem introduction to the realm of free flying. The answer was an enthusiastic "yes." Her intention was to simply enjoy the experience and tell the folks back home. But something Malcolm said during the flight ignited a small spark in Michelle's mind. "You know, up here we're all the same," was his observation..
Pondering this later, Michelle came to appreciate the irony: although she was confined to a wheelchair and unable to participate in most sports, she could, in fact, practice hang gliding, perhaps the freest of all pursuits.
It was another year before Michelle returned to the Ranch to take her second tandem flight. A few flights later, the positive comments by Malcolm and chief instructor David Glover made her realize that she could actually fly alone. She dropped all pending responsibilities and signed up for a lesson program.
I met Michelle at the Ranch last February while she was engaged in her second series of lessons. She was all smiles, for after a number of tandem flights she was controlling the glider from takeoff through a series of turns and the landing setup. Her attitude was inquisitive, positive and patient. I remarked to myself how she would likely become a very good pilot.
A couple of months later Michelle returned to the Ranch and accomplished her first solo flight. She towed to 2,500 feet on a Moyes XL which she claims tows more easily than the tandem glider. She was a little nervous, but the flight was reportedly picture perfect from start to finish. She has made quite a few solo flights since then, and by now is happily flying her own glider, an Airborne Buzz.

Rhett, Kerry, Malcolm, Michelle, David, and Bucky after Michelle's first solo flight

picture of MIchelle and Friends
What makes flying possible for Michelle, and others like her, is towing aloft from a dolly and landing on wheels. Indeed, this method of teaching, employed at Wallaby Ranch and other operations, is revolutionizing the way people learn hang gliding. No longer do students have to struggle up hills and wrangle a glider as they learn. Neither do they have to learn to take off and flare to land at the beginning. Teaching with tandem towing is similar to teaching in an airplane. There may be more overhead, but the results are far superior. Michelle is a perfect example of the effectiveness of this system.
Michelle's new-found enthusiasm for hang gliding follows a familiar pattern: she wants to see more, learn more and do more. To that end she drove out to Albuquerque, New Mexico to attend the Sandia classic. There she volunteered her services as a driver, and not only did she do an excellent job but also learned a lot more about hang gliding from all the discussions and visual displays of flying prowess.
But the maximum reward will come to Michelle when she realizes her dream: to get back into the ski show. She is currently president and past show director for the Aquanuts Water Show Club, based in Wisconsin. She has directed and choreographed shows around the country. Now she intends to become part of the performance again through hang gliding. Flat kites and Rogallos were an early part of many ski show. Michelle wants to incorporate her modern hang glider into the program.
Hang gliding has given much to Michelle. The biggest gift is a new-found sense of freedom. On the other hand, she and others with similar disabilities have given much to hang gliding, for they inspire the rest of us with their enthusiasm and quest to become exceptional pilots.