Just hanging around
Dan Buchanan flies because he cannot walk. The 46-year-old paraplegic hang glider is the quietest act in Fargo AirSho 2002, Saturday and Sunday at Fargo's Hector International Airport. "The freedom of being out there with nothing undernea...
Dan Buchanan flies because he cannot walk.
The 46-year-old paraplegic hang glider is the quietest act in Fargo AirSho 2002, Saturday and Sunday at Fargo's Hector International Airport.
"The freedom of being out there with nothing underneath you -- there's nothing like it," Buchanan said Thursday as he prepared his hang glider for the weekend shows.
Buchanan will give a twilight performance at 9 p.m. today as part of a Fargo Air Museum fundraiser at Hector.
Buchanan grew up near Lake Tahoe, Nev., a free spirit who enjoyed motorcycle racing and scuba diving. He was a home contractor in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey before returning to Lake Tahoe and southern California in 1980.
Once back in his home area, he began teaching scuba diving. He traded scuba diving lessons with a hang gliding instructor and immediately fell in love with the weightless feeling one gets flying off a mountain on a hang glider.
"It was instantly a new passion," he said.
He flew for more than a year -- more than 150 flights -- before another changed his life forever. A storm was rising on the horizon that day. Buchanan ignored his flight instructor's warnings and decided to fly anyway.
"There was weather in the distance, carrying in a thunderstorm," he said, when he launched himself off a small mountain above Lake Tahoe.
He knew it was a mistake. "I flew for an hour and 15 minutes because I was afraid to land," he said.
He finally landed, but landed too hard. It wasn't the force of his legs hitting the ground that injured him, but his hang glider striking him on the head. "It gave me a compression fracture," he said. "Instantly, I knew I was paralyzed."
Several children who had watched him launch returned to see if he had landed. They found him on the ground, unable to move. "I told them to call an ambulance," Buchanan said.
He continued to think about flying while he recovered in a San Francisco hospital. As soon as he was released, Buchanan sought out the local hang gliding club and said he wanted to fly again.
"They said, 'Yeah. Right,'" Buchanan said. But they soon realized he was serious and helped him renew his love for the sport.
"It wasn't the sport that hurt me. It was my stupidity," Buchanan said. "I didn't have to fly that day.
"Yes, there's an inherent risk. But it was my decision that left me this way. I was a young guy with a cavalier attitude."
Buchanan went to college in a wheelchair to become a Silicon Valley engineer -- a job that provided money to fuel his airborne passion.
He joined a team of experienced hang gliders in 1989 for a demonstration at an air show in Medford, Ore. "It was the first air show I had ever seen -- and here I was in it," he said.
The crowd enjoyed the quiet interlude to jets and stunt planes and Buchanan enjoyed performing. In 1989 he hit the air show circuit full-time, adding flair to his performances with streamers, flag, pyrotechnics and comedy bits with regional stunt plane pilots.
"It's been an evolution -- learning the business and doing some visual theatrics out there that are different from everything else in the shows," he said.
On the road with Buchanan is Steve Pavon, a retired electrical engineer and "trusted friend."
Trusted friend because Pavon is the guy who controls the hydraulic winch which releases Buchanan and his Australian ultralight glider into the air off the back of a 30-mph pickup and trailer combination.
"I pay him to get me into the air safely," Buchanan said.
"I'm the king of the string and he's the dope on a rope," Pavon said. "If I bounce him off the pavement, then everybody is looking at me."
Buchanan performs at altitudes ranging from 0 to 1,500 feet. He lands on two nearly-flat tires mounted on a bar he holds in his hands.
When he's not performing, Buchanan returns home to Lake Tahoe for some down time, racing ATVs.
"When we get home from an air show, we don't answer the phone," Pavon said, "because we know its Dan, and we know he wants to go out and play."
Readers can reach Forum Business Editor Gerry Gilmour at (701) 241-5560
If you go
What: 2002 Fargo AirSho
When: Saturday and Sunday. Gates open each day at 9 a.m.
Where: Hector International Airport, Fargo
Tickets: Still available at area Stop-N-Go stores, the Fargo Air Museum, Fargo Jet Center, West Acres and, in Grand Forks, N.D., at Valley Dairy stores.
What to bring
- Blankets and lawn chairs (Most viewing areas are on the concrete, although grassy areas are available.)
- Suntan lotion, sunscreen
- Hearing protection
- Cameras and binoculars
What to skip
- Backpacks (diaper bags are OK)