Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wings To Fly

A paraplegic’s tenacious journey to the skies

My name is Peter Pretorius. My life began in November of 1959 when I entered the world as a healthy seven-pound boy. I started walking at nine months. At the end of 1961, all kids in South Africa were immunized against polio. I developed flu and subsequently wasn't immunized like my two sisters.

Two months later, my mother woke up one morning to find me lying paralyzed in my cot. She rushed me to the hospital, and within a day, I was placed in an iron lung—life support. Polio attacks muscles, but also the nerves between the brains and muscles, resulting in paralysis. My right-hand side was affected quite badly, and my left-hand side recovered somewhat, but the prognosis was that I'd never walk again.

When I was eight, I went in for an operation on my left leg (my strong leg) to remove tissue to transplant to the weak leg. At the time, I had a boil on my knee, which I showed to the doctor before the operation. He was unconcerned. During the operation however, they lacerated the boil, the infection went into the operation wound, and two days later, my toes turned blue. I was rushed to the hospital in Johannesburg with gangrene. After three months in the hospital, my left leg— my strong leg—had to be amputated.

Childhood was a journey through rudimentary prosthetic limbs and the dream to fly. Despite my physical challenges, or maybe because of them, I loved the idea of flight from an early age; it was the ultimate liberation from the restrictions I had to face. At age 27, I was married and decided that I was in a financial position to start flying. Little did I know how challenging those times would be.

The Directorate of Civil Aviation in South Africa was the authority at the time. They gave my student pilot application one look and said that they were sorry, but I'd never be able to fly—never, ever. The first course of reasoning was interesting: They had found out that one of my eyes had less than 20/20 vision.

After two years, when I pointed out that there was a pilot who only had one eye, they finally admitted that the eye wasn't the real problem…the legs were. They were adamant that I'd never be able to use aircraft rudder pedals to the required standard.

It was then that I discovered a Quicksilver Ultralight that had a hand rudder and no ailerons. The Directorate of Civil Aviation had to relent. They were clear, though, that I'd only be permitted to fly an ultralight, and only a Quicksilver at that. But one afternoon, the most beautiful aircraft roared over my head, and I said to my friend, "What was that?"

"An Ercoupe," he said. "It has no rudder pedals."

The sentence was life-changing. Six months later, I was the owner of an Ercoupe. I didn't yet have my PPL, but I needed to convince the DCA that I was imminent pilot material. After purchasing my plane, I thought that I had all the ammo to get my PPL. After many meetings and telephone discussions, I was referred to the Director of Civil Aviation. He peered at me over his desk and concluded that there just was no way in the world I'd be able to get out of an aircraft and 10 meters away in time to save myself if a fire should break out on the ground. I asked him how he'd establish what an acceptable time to evacuate was and what would constitute an unacceptable time. He smirked and replied that he'd use himself as a yardstick against me, as he was a qualified commercial pilot and did internal charter work for the DCA as part of his duties.


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