“Joe Stone talks about adaptive paragliding, inclusion for people with disabilities and his foundation
Online Exclusive posted Thursday, November 1, 2018 – 2:40pm
Following your dreams and your passions is something Joe Stone feels very strongly about. Stone has been an adventure seeker his whole life. He loves sports that give you a rush, sports that mostly have to do with flying, such as sky diving and speed flying, a high-performance version of paragliding. On August 13, 2010, Stone was speed flying in Missoula, Mont., when he crashed into a mountain going 40 miles per hour, where he broke his neck and became a C7 incomplete quadriplegic.
For years after his injury, Stone tried to find a sport that gave him the same feeling as speed flying. He tried quad rugby, triathlon, downhill skiing, cross country skiing and off-road hand cycling – nothing sparked his interest quite like speed flying.
“I needed to find something that could bring that passion into my life like speed flying was doing before I had my injury,” Stone says. “Nothing really grabbed me anything near speed flying, or just free flight in general, so with that I just hit a certain point where I had to sit back and say you know what, I think about this every day, I look up into the mountains and wish I was up there flying, this is something I literally dream about at night. I need to follow what it is that I love and what my mind is telling me I want to be doing.”
That is when Stone found adaptive paragliding through Project Airtime, a non-profit organization that helps people with disabilities try free flying sports, such as paragliding. The founder, Chris Santacroce, reached out to Stone and informed him all about Project Airtime and Stone was instantly interested. It wasn’t long until he was trying adaptive paragliding, despite almost losing his life four years prior.
“I knew I needed to at least go explore [paragliding] to see if it was even worth figuring out, or if the possibilities were really there,” Stone says. “I didn’t know what I was going to get into. I would’ve gotten back into it right away, but it was challenging because I knew my mom, dad and family would be really worried about me getting back in the air, given everything that we all went through together with my accident. So, I had to process that, and it got to a point where I thought we can’t live our lives for other people, we need to do what we love, and as long as we aren’t hurting anyone else in the process then we need to follow our dreams.”
Stone tried adaptive paragliding for the first time in March of 2014. Since then, he has traveled over many mountains and spent countless hours in the air. His longest flight while paragliding is over two and a half hours.
“Really, it’s the freedom,” Stone says. “We’ve all thought about flying. The simplicity that comes with paragliding is what I love the most. It’s just fabric with some strings attached to it that are pressed to your harness and it all goes into a backpack. It’s just very simple and once you’re in the air even the setup process you’re pretty in the moment, so you make sure you do everything right, and when you’re launching in the air, it’s like everything else disappears and you’re living in a very present state of mind and that’s kind of challenging to find these days – to find something you can do where you truly are very present in what you’re doing.”
To Stone, who has many years of experience, paragliding is very simple – but to a rookie, it may seem complicated with how many steps there are to it. First, getting a wheelchair more specific to paragliding is very important. Your everyday wheelchair doesn’t have the proper tires or traction.
Learning and perfecting each step is crucial for the safety of paragliding. On his trike, Stone has a harness and his paragliding wing that is connected to his harness. He also has a reserve parachute that attaches to his harness in case of an emergency. Stone uses his phone as a GPS system and to track notes, such as his speed, altitude, and wind direction. Before he takes off, Stone has a very strict routine that he follows every time.
“I transfer onto the flying chair, and from there I pull in my leg straps and then I have skirt that I put over my legs which not only makes it more aerodynamic, but also helps keep me a bit warmer. So, then I zip that up and finish doing the rest of my harness and from there I hook in my reserve container that has my reserve parachute in it then from there I attach my instruments and everything. After all of that I sit there and try to stay quiet and keep to myself and try not to be distracted or get into any conversations because you need to make sure you have all of this stuff done properly in order to stay safe.”
As a precaution, Stone checks his work two to three times before taking off. After he has everything set up, he gets someone he trusts who is an avid paraglider to help him with departure. After launching, he is completely on his own with only radios as verbal communication. The process of flying once you are in the air can be tricky – paying attention to the weather conditions is crucial. There is no engine pushing you, it’s just the wind and the wing gliding you across the sky, so focusing on guiding yourself through the air so you stay in flight as long as you can, or as long as the weather will allow, is important.
“What’s cool about the paragliders is that it is pretty simple,” Stone says. “You just have a toggle in each hand and those are your breaks – if you pull the right toggle you’ll turn to the right, if you pull the left you’ll turn to the left, and if you pull them both down it’s called flaring and that’s how you land and how you slow down when needed. It can sound complicated when I explain all of the pieces and how it all works, but when you learn it you don’t learn everything I just shared, it’s just one little step at a time. In the end, it all flows and you have a better understanding, but that’s where time and experience really plays a role in how good of a pilot you are, how safe of a pilot you are, and a number of other things.”
Stone has flown over many places in the United States, but he still has a few places he’d like to go paragliding.
“I’ve flown over quite a few places at this point and they all have something quite unique to offer,” he says. “Since last February, I have been traveling quite a bit and flying over sites, and now I’m in the stage where I’m actually hungry to fly new places, new conditions, new air, new people, new everything, and that’s just helping build up my experience and my skills and my awareness. The cool thing about paragliding is once you get into it and you are at a point where you can go fly in all of those places, the world just opens up. There are a ton of places to go fly, and the places on my list are probably Chamonix in France, Columbia, and I’d love to go up to Alaska and go paragliding there. I don’t even know if there’s a point to saying that there’s a number one on my list because now I just want to go explore the world through paragliding and see the world from that perspective.”