The founder of SoarAbility is Damien O’Reilly who has been gliding since 1971. He learnt to fly with the Dublin Gliding Club when it used to operate from the Irish Army Air Corps base at Baldonnel which lies in the foothills of the Dublin Mountains in Ireland. In this, he was, like a number of young teenagers in and around Dublin at that time who benefitted from a dedicated and selfless team of people who provided aircraft and instruction for those eager and willing to learn this new skill. It was more than just gliding. By predisposition and inclination gliding folk the world over share a bond that is unique in the aviation world and for many it has shaped and nurtured their values, beliefs and even their careers.
Whilst flying in Ireland, and later in Australia, Damien had the opportunity from time to time to give air experience flights to those with limited capacity to fully control the aircraft themselves. Whilst every effort was made to accommodate pilots with such needs, the limited technology and equipment available at that time precluded such people from becoming active and accomplished participants in this sport. The control system challenges notwithstanding, these were further exacerbated by the difficulty in getting those with special needs in and out of the cockpits.
It was at this point in his youth that Damien made a decision to pursue the future development of a dedicated soaring centre for those with physical challenges if and when a confluence of time, improvement in technology, and finances coalesced. In the intervening period, building a career, raising a son and meeting all of the other and usual challenges of life precluded this mission until May 2009. At this juncture a Company called Quiet Flight Pty Ltd was formed to acquire and manage suitable aircraft and the equipment and facilities that would be required. The following month a sister company called “SoarAbility” was formed with the intention of utilising these aircraft for the purpose intended. In large measure, SoarAbility drew its initial inspiration from the gliding for the physically challenged activity operated by “Glideability” at the Ulster Gliding Club based at Bellarena near Loch Foyle in Northern Ireland. A visit to this operation in September 2009 also raised a number of issues for further consideration. Given that Glideability enjoyed a line of capital and other funding courtesy of the UK Government and other agencies, and SoarAbility is, as yet, a privately funded endeavour, it would have to be operated differently. Compounding this was the fact that Glideability and other similar enterprises in the UK enjoy the support of a team of keen and dedicated volunteers, who manage the ground marshalling, the lifting of those who require assistance to get into the cockpits along with the aero towing and or other gliding launching requirements. Resources that SoarAbility might not have access to as and when required.
For SoarAbility to be a safe, successful and reliable provider of air experience flights and training it would need to have the following:
- An operation that would rely on technology in the absence of a dedicated team of people being available to assist with passenger loading and ground handling.
- A self launching two seater motor glider that was steerable on the ground and that did not need a wing runner and or tow plane to help get it aloft.
- A system for getting passengers in and out of the aircraft in a manner that could be independently operated and largely managed by themselves. And to do so with comfort and dignity.
- A host airfield that could accommodate the requirement to construct a purpose designed and built facility. And as important; a facility that would allow minimal waiting time and or exposure to the harshness of the Australian climate in summer.
The Search for an Airfield
An initial search for a suitable airfield indicated that Northam, lying just over 1 hours’ drive east of Perth in Western Australia might offer the best home for SoarAbility. A meeting with the local Shire and Aero Club was positive and they both welcomed the prospect of having SoarAbility as an airfield activity. One disadvantage of the Northam site however was the prevalence of strong cross winds on the signal narrow strip and the presence of runway lights at 16 meter separations across the runway. Given that the wingspan of the ASK21Mi was 17 meters and taxied in a one wing down configuration this might prove challenging to negotiate in some circumstances and wind conditions.
It was at this time that the President of the Cunderdin Shire Council, the late Rod Carter, who was also and coincidentally: the President of the Gliding Club of Western Australia (GCWA), suggested that their site with its former military runways of exceptional length and width, and newly re surfaced, might offer a more practical alternative to Northam.
Whilst the latter offered convenience in terms of location and travel time from the city of Perth, the Cunderdin site had a number of advantages these being:
- Two sealed runways of considerable width and length.
- An active and long established resident gliding club and where a coincidence of interest and mutual support between the two endeavours was likely
- The potential for those having air experience flights to progress in their flying via the training and instructors panel at the Gliding Club of Western Australia
- The opportunity to interact with experienced pilots and share experiences.
- A keen and progressive Shire Council prepared to allocate a site for a purpose built facility to be constructed if a suitable proposal was submitted.
- The Safety benefit of having two long runways, with flat emergency landing options in abundance, and a large team of experienced gliding instructors with which to obtain advice and support.
- The possibility of having a backup aero towing option if the self-launching system was out for maintenance and or where the pupil had reached a stage in his or her training where exposure to alternative launching methods was required for them to progress to the next stage.