Saturday, May 05, 2012

Pennsylvania: Flying is freedom for Raccoon Township native

Pilot Clayton Smeltz 
Despite not having use of his legs Clayton Smeltz, formally of Raccoon Township, recently learned to fly using a plane with modified hand controls.

Six months ago, 32-year-old Clayton Smeltz learned to fly.

 “To be able to race down the runway, shoot yourself off into the sky and suddenly you’re free to go anywhere you want and do anything you want,” Smeltz said. “It’s a feeling of freedom and liberation that I don’t think I’d be able to experience otherwise.”

The Raccoon Township native hasn’t walked since he was 16 months old, when a pickup ran him over. The accident damaged his spine, and he has used a wheelchair ever since.

“Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean your will and want and drive to go out and do active things is changed at all,” Smeltz said.

From the time Smeltz was young, building remote-control planes with his father, Harry “Bud” Smeltz III, and grandfather, Harry “Bud” Smeltz Jr., he has dreamed of flying.

Last fall, the Mansfield, Ohio, resident set out to earn his pilot’s license and said he never thought that it would be impossible.

His life, after all, has been about what is possible.

When Smeltz was a teenager, he wanted to ride a dirt bike like his younger brother, Buddy. So, he designed a shifting mechanism and mounted it on the handle bars.

“I’d ride around for hours because it was like the first time you ever rode a bike, you know? It was awesome,” he said. “Until it came time to stop, which was always a complication.”

As a freshman mechanical engineering major at Geneva College, the 1997 Hopewell High School graduate decided that he wanted to make products for people with disabilities. He found a career designing assistive technologies and now is general manager at Mansfield-based Forbes Rehab Services Inc., which manufactures communication software and other devices for individuals with disabilities.

“There’s a verse in the Bible that says you can do all things through Christ, who strengthens you, and that’s really how I live my life and where I believe that strength comes from,” Smeltz said.

Smeltz always was a daredevil, said his older sister, April Smeltz Martella of Hopewell Township.
“Clayton doesn’t live life in that wheelchair,” she said. “Everything everybody else was doing, he was right there doing it the same or figuring out his own way.”

Smeltz also had to find his own way to learn to fly because most small planes have foot pedals that control the rudders and brakes.

Research turned up an adaptive device that would allow Smeltz to control a plane with his hands. He soon found a friend with a Piper Cherokee 140 — one of the few planes compatible with the hardware and already equipped with a hand brake.

Smeltz bought his blue-striped “Rusty Bird,” and a certified mechanic installed the hand control, which the serial number indicates was only the 52nd such part that had been produced.

“I was pretty well vested into it before I knew if it was even going to be something that was doable,” Smeltz said.

A short time later, Smeltz received a call from Mansfield flight instructor Dave Storm.

“He said, ‘Hey, are we gonna do some flying?’” Smeltz recalled. “That was great because I didn’t know if any flight instructor was really going to be crazy enough to get in a plane with someone that had a disability and a plane that had been adapted.”

Storm, a former high school teacher, said he knew from the start that Smeltz was a high achiever and was very driven.

“He said to me, if there was ever a time that I felt uncomfortable, he would understand,” Storm said. “He was kind of giving me a door to go through if I didn’t like what was happening, but I never felt like that.”

Storm said Smeltz flew as often as he could and quickly reached the 40 hours of flight training required to take the Federal Aviation Administration certification test.

After a grueling 10-hour exam — consisting of a standard oral test and check flight, as well as an additional medical check flight to ensure that Smeltz could operate the plane safely with the modifications — Smeltz received his pilot’s certificate March 30.

“It was an unbelievable marathon for him,” Storm said. “Lesser people might not have thought it was worth the effort.”

Smeltz, who often makes the 1 1/2 hour flight home to Beaver County, said learning to fly was a blessing.

“I’m really praying that it’s a part of my life to stay,” he said.

Ever the innovator, Smeltz now is on the lookout for ways to help others with disabilities reach the sky.

“For an engineer to get into an airplane as a paraplegic, ideas start like spilling into your mind, because no one has designed a plane for somebody who’s paraplegic,” Smeltz said.

“I’ve been praying about it, and I’ll have my eyes open for ways to bring this to other people.”

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