CHASE DREAMS. In spite of a physical disability, Jan Hercek accomplished his dream of flying his Pipistrel Taurus G2.
Jan Hercek got his flying start the way a lot of us did back then: in an old Rogallo-style hang glider. But his obsession with flight began long before. "I have always dreamed of flying," is how he began his stirring story on a recent visit to the Pipistrel factory in Ajdovšcina, Slovenia. "When I was nine years old, I drew sketches of aircraft and pretend calculations on how to make an aircraft fly."
Next it was models of paper, then wood. Before long, as children do, he played "with everything that looked as if it could fly." But the sky-struck boy wore glasses. He was devastated when adults told him pilots didn't wear glasses in his native Czechoslovakia, then still a highly restrictive Iron Curtain country. "This broke my heart. I wanted to be in the air—somehow, anyhow!" Hercek said.
The dream went underground until after school, when he joined the military to study electronics—and to "get close to aircraft." Stationed in the city of Brno, he enrolled in parachute training and fell in love with the sport...and a woman named Jane. "She didn't intend to jump...she was there to enjoy the company, the people and the training," added Hercek. But when the group went up for the first time, the ground training had removed Jane's fear. She was the first one out of the airplane! The very next jumper was Jan. After only three jumps, the adventure was over. Their airborne chariot, a big, boxy Russian AN 2 biplane, (I flew in one in Cuba years ago), was reassigned.
"In 1984, I started hang-glider training," Hercek continued. "The school had one old Rogallo which flew like a stone. That didn't stop me from having a great time. I was flying! Soon, I bought my own Rogallo with a glide ratio of 8:1—for the time, that was fantastic!" Then, a terrible accident.
"I remember trying to land in a valley. Just before touchdown, one wing caught the lee rotor, and it flipped me over. The hang glider stopped dead and slammed into the ground. The deceleration force spread my vertebrae and tore the nerves and ligaments. I felt no pain at all—but I couldn't feel my legs either," Hercek recalled. His first thought? If he couldn't walk, he would be discharged and could do "all the things I'd always wanted and didn't have time for."
A year in the hospital failed to restore feeling to his legs. Hercek left the army with little money for the future, but a wealth of flying dreams intact. He thought about adding a powered trike unit to the Rogallo. He wouldn't need his legs for that. Jane said, flatly, no: It was either her way or the sky way. "It was a hard decision!" Hercek remembered. "After some thinking, I decided to live the family life and stop flying. It was a good decision. I don't regret it at all."
The next 25 years brought him a "beautiful, very happy marriage...I spent all my time with my wife, working, talking, laughing together. We were as one." Then Jane got cancer. Within two years, she was gone. "My world collapsed once again." It took two more years for Hercek to find the will to move on. "Then, I decided I needed a new hobby."
He got into flying radio-control models, determined to excel at freestyle aerobatics, about as challenging as it gets. Fate intervened again. When the local hobby-shop owner offered him a glider ride, Hercek realized his promise to Jane was no longer binding. Up he went.
In rapid succession, he flew in a variety of aircraft and decided to become a pilot, no matter what. Many challenges loomed. Obstacle 1: There were no Slovakian aircraft adapted for disabled people. Obstacle 2: He had to pass all the tests and get a medical certificate, which led to Obstacle 3: The doctor told him he was nuts.
But Hercek did his homework. The law said, as long as he could demonstrate his ability to safely fly an airplane, the medical establishment would have to okay him, assuming no other health issues arose. In time, he and that same doctor became friends. The doc even helped him overcome the bureaucratic tangle of challenges and legal appeals.
Time for Obstacle 4: buying the right airplane. "I chose a self-launching glider. That would give me more independence." It would also let him power back to his home airport after long soaring flights without fear of landing out. There was one last obstacle: getting in and out of the cockpit without help...and being able to take the wheelchair with him.
"The only aircraft which met all my criteria was the Pipistrel Taurus," said Hercek. Last year, Pipistrel won the NASA-CAFE Green Flight Challenge and a $1.35 million prize by marrying two Taurus glider fuselages to one big wing. It flew on battery power alone. When Hercek called to discuss ordering a Taurus modified to fly with hands-only controls, Ivo Boscarol, company founder and a visionary in his own right, immediately said yes, we can do that, and please come help us get it right. "They were very helpful and obliging throughout the entire construction process."
The one Taurus decision Hercek made that had nothing to do flying was the color of the seats. "My Jane liked yellow flowers the most. I ordered yellow seats in her memory."
His first flight in his new bird with the hands-only controller affirmed the power of his dream...but also showed he would need more practice to fly it well. "You must move your hands very precisely in all three directions. Every move matters, not just left and right, but also the twist of your wrist. But it was easier than I expected. And I was flying!" After more training, including stall and spin recovery, the Pipistrel team packed up his new glider into its trailer and..."Off I went, so overjoyed I could barely move!"
Jan Hercek finished his story with this: "Whatever you think is impossible, is really impossible for you. And whatever you think is possible, it really is possible for you, just don't be afraid to try it. Make a plan, consult with your friends and with the experts, with everyone who can help you—and follow your dreams."
Since last autumn, Hercek has logged more than 15 hours of flight time in his Taurus G2, with nearly 100 takeoffs and landings. The inspiration I take away from his story, the reason I wanted to share it with you, is simply this: It's never about the obstacles. It's everything about our desire to live our dreams. We create our own reality, no matter what life throws at us.
In Hercek's words: "Disability forces you to plan ahead carefully. My motto was: 'Know what you want—and don't stop until you get it!'"
Many thanks to Team Pipistrel for bringing Plane & Pilot this story.