Dick Traum started the Achilles International handcycle program. Photo: Meredith Kurz
“There’s a hydraulic fuel leak,” Lou Chinal heard in his helmet radio. His colonel, who’d seen the fluid coming out of Lou’s Navy jet while flying nearby, continued, “You’ll need to jettison.”
I assumed parachutes were parked on a jet pilot’s back, and up and out they’d go. I was wrong, as Lou explained on a recent morning.
The Martin Baker (MB) is an ejection seat kit. When you deploy your MB, “Keep your elbows in,” Lou told me. “If you don’t keep them in, when you eject you’ll either lose ‘em or break ‘em.” Lou showed me the correct way to eject from a jet. “Reach your arms up overhead, like this,” he said, looking like he was doing a tight pull up from a seated position. “Elbows in, then pull down.”
The ejection seat kits come with an inflatable life raft, and oxygen. “There’s three different kinds of oxygen on an aircraft carrier,” Lou told me. “Pilots get the one that’s completely dry, no moisture, so it doesn’t freeze up in high altitude.”
During ejection, the clear canopy over the cockpit blows off and the pilot is flung into the air. Lou’s canopy came off, his parachute unfurled, but, twisting, got caught in its own lines. “There was a partial open,” he explained.
“How far did you fall?” I asked. People nearby had been semi-ignoring us. At this point, all pretense was dropped. They leaned in.
“About 13-5,” Lou replied, then clarified, “13,500 feet.
“If you’re in that situation,” he told me, “inflate your life raft between your legs and use it as a cushion.”
It was a hard landing, cushion notwithstanding. After nine weeks in an induced coma, followed by three years in a nursing home, Lou walked out. A retired Naval Air Reservist, Lou continues to walk — he doesn’t even use a cane — with Achilles International, a non-profit organization that provides support to athletes with disabilities.Inspiration and Determination
It was Saturday morning and I was at the group’s weekly walk-run workout, which meets at Central Park’s Engineer’s Gate at 10 a.m. in the spring.
Over one hundred people had gathered, all shapes, ages, and abilities. There were also volunteers on hand who would be divvied up among the runners who needed guides.
“I used to always start my weekend workout from Engineer’s Gate,” one young volunteer told me. “I was so inspired to see everyone out here every Saturday morning, I just joined up!” I met Dave, who’s volunteered with Achilles for four years, and helps out with the guide dogs that many visually impaired runners rely on. When they run, they leave their dogs with volunteers like Dave, and are tethered to volunteers who run with them. Nishat is a New York Cares volunteer who discovered the Achilles program, and brought her friend Madeleine.
Michael Anderson, Achilles’ New York director, had to stand on a bench and throw his voice so all could hear. There were upcoming activities to announce, not only through Achilles, but with the Marlene Meyerson JCC, on Amsterdam Avenue between 75th and 76th Streets, which has been hosting Achilles events for over ten years.
The next big Achilles event is the 17th Annual Hope and Possibility 4 Mile, to be held on Sunday, June 23rd. (For more info and to sign up or donate go here: www.achillesinternational.org/hope-possibility) The run, the largest of its kind, brings together “athletes with disabilities and able-bodied athletes in a celebration of running.” There will be prizes, free t-shirts for kids and of course, lots of competition. There are several categories, including handcycles, push-rim wheelchairs and the Achilles Freedom Team.A Variety of Programs
Achilles Freedom Team brings “running and marathon opportunities to veterans who suffered trauma while serving in a branch of the United States military, predominantly those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Stefan LeRoy a Freedom Team runner, recently made news running a 5K, 10K, half-marathon and a marathon in one weekend, running with, among others, Achilles guide David Cordani. Here’s the link: www.achillesinternational.org/freedom-team
Achilles Kids has been helping kids with disabilities for over 23 years to exercise regularly and “compete with other runners, helping them become stronger and healthier.” They offer two weekend programs in NYC. www.achillesinternational.org/achilles-kids or call 212-354-0300 x305.
Tri Achilles Team is for athletes with disabilities interested in multi-sport competitions. There is a wide range of experience and abilities for the competitors, and they receive training and coaching in swimming, biking, and running. www.achillesinternational.org/paratriathlon-team
The Handcycle Program was started by Dick Traum, who, after knee surgery, discovered handcycling was not only a great alternative exercise, handcycles could be used to compete. Achilles presented the idea of handcycling to wounded veterans who lost limbs in conflicts. The program became the Achilles Freedom Team of Wounded Veterans. Achilles was able to offer “wounded military personnel a seemingly ‘impossible’ goal of completing marathons because they could use a handcycle.” To learn more about the handcycle program contact Joe Traum (Dick’s son), director of operations and wheelchair logistics at email@example.com.
Marlene Meyerson JCC also offers exercise opportunities in their facilities on the Upper West Side. The Jack and Shirley Silver Center for Special Needs offers aquatics and gymnastic programming for children. The Edmond J. Safra Parkinson’s Wellness Program offers “exercise, support groups, and events designed to keep those impacted by Parkinson’s and their families active, connected, and empowered.” For these and other programs, go to www.jccmanhattan.org
The Achilles guides, in their neon yellow shirts headed over to the reservoir track with their athletic partners. As I watched Lou walking with his comrades, all I could think was, 13-5.