A Fall From the Sky

Plane Crash Leads Local Man to Successful Career as Innovator/entrepreneur Slightly less than three years ago, Twin Cities native Mark […]

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Plane Crash Leads Local Man to Successful
Career as Innovator/entrepreneur

Slightly less than three years ago, Twin Cities native Mark Felling dropped off a package at the post office on his way to work. It would be the last thing he remembered that month.

His memories began to return in late July after getting transferred out of ICU at Hennepin County Medical Center. At that time he learned he could not move anything but his head because he had completely crushed his neck at the C5 level. He could barely talk due to pneumonia caused by a ventilator that was assisting his breathing. During the following weeks he slowly pieced together what happened.

After leaving work late, Felling stopped off at Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, Minnesota to practice a few takeoffs and landings. He was preparing for a Fourth of July flight to visit family in Central Minnesota.

After filling up with fuel, Felling took off and landed once before deciding to go around just one more time as the sun glowed full on the horizon. Following takeoff from the southbound runway his engine stalled for undeterminable reasons at the worst possible time—just as he was leaving the end of the runway, crossing 50 to 200 feet above Highway 212. Training dictates that with less than 500 feet of altitude there is not enough to turn around and land back on the runway. Rather one must continue straight forward and try to pick the best possible location to crash land the airplane.

Ahead was a long hill sloping down to the Minnesota River, surrounded by trees and marshes. Gliding at about 70 mph, tree branches are much more forgiving to a fixed-gear aircraft than water, which offers either certain death from impact or drowning. Felling glided along the slope of the hill while trying to restart the engine. He radioed the control tower that he was going down with little time to say much else. He turned 90° to avoid the river and apparently tried to put the small plane down in a plowed field. Instead, he ended up in the trees 50 feet short of the field.

A close friend who visited the crash site informed Felling that he was either very skillful or very lucky and had flown right between two large trees. He got the plane within 40 feet of the ground before his wing hit a large branch, stopping the airplane in midair. However, momentum caused the airplane to flip up-side-down, pivot around the wing and drop 40 feet to impact the ground. With only one inch of clearance over his head in the Plexiglas cockpit, even a full four-point harness could not prevent Felling’s head from getting smashed into his shoulders.

It took rescuers 45 minutes with a helicopter equipped with infrared sensors to locate Felling just across the river from Valley Fair. They found him conscious but fading, with aircraft fuel trickling down the back of his legs. He informed them he was very numb and could not move his legs or arms. As a former lifeguard Felling feels he likely suspected his spinal cord was damaged at that time. It took more rescuers and another 45 minutes to extract Felling from the upside down aircraft and airlift him away.

Soon after recovering his memory, Felling began reinventing his life—with a passion. He was transferred to Sister Kenny Rehabilitation Institute, where during his first few weeks in bed he began designing in his mind what will be the world’s first wheelchair accessible airplane capable of being piloted by anyone who can drive a motor vehicle with hand controls. He resolved that if he would be paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair, he would simply have to design an appropriate airplane if he were to ever fly again. The ongoing project has become known as the “Sky Chairiot,” with others becoming involved such as Steve Craigle, a retired Boeing aerospace engineer.

During the past three years Felling’s life has been going full speed ahead. He has used his engineering background and previous experience teaching quality verification at high-tech companies to investigate and test more than 20 wheelchairs. He has completed his Master’s Degree in Business Administration. Along the way, he has invented and developed five innovative solutions to accessibility problems. These he recently introduced through his newly formed company, Broadened Horizons, under the brand “Gimp Gear.” These products are designed specifically for mobility impaired individuals, focusing on wheelchair users with upper extremity limitations in their hands and arms such as quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and ALS.

Felling’s creative energy reaches beyond his company. He struggled against “the system” for two years to obtain a Levo Combi standing wheelchair. He now hopes the Swiss company will allow him to represent them locally so others can obtain this quality chair with less difficulty. He drives a Pontiac Montana minivan with EMC “drive-by wire” hand controls and lives in a wheelchair accessible home. Last year he acted as his own architect and contractor to fix some basement water problems he inherited with the home and added a backyard patio. During the same time he had surgery on his left arm to implant a 12 electrode neuro-prosthesis into his paralyzed muscles to provide a sort of artificial grasp he describes as “my hand, my muscles, computer-controlled.” He is one of 6 people to have this particular device implanted as part of his ongoing involvement in a research study at The FES Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

More information on Felling’s ongoing projects, the detailed story of his crash complete with photos and video news coverage, as well as many disability and advocacy resources can be found on his personal Web site at: www. MarkFelling.com. More information on the Sky Chairiot project can be found at www.BroadenedHorizons.org. His company’s Web site is www.GimpGear.US.

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