From Spectator to Aviator
The Success Story of Michelle Cook
By Dennis Pagen
Hanggliding Magazine, October 1995
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
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.