Disabled veterans get chance to fly helicopters with ‘Helileg’ device

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Trevor Fennig typed the words “paraplegic helicopter pilot” into an Internet search engine, waited a few seconds and  caught the first glimpse of what his new life could be .

Fennig saw a YouTube video of Stewart McQuillan, a partially paralyzed British veteran,  flying a helicopter.

Fennig, who had flown fixed-wing aircraft since he was a little kid, lost the use of his own legs in 2009, just before he turned 18. While taking target practice in the Indiana  woods, his gun slipped from its holster and  discharged. The  bullet struck his spine.

Trevor Fennig, right, age 20, lost the use of his legs at age 18. Using a HeliLeg, Fennig flys the R44 helicopter over The Heritage at Wesmoore golf course just south of the Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport control tower on Wednesday, May 16th. Guiding him through the flight is his instructor, retired CW3 Mike Fyola. Recently, Fennig started using HeliLeg, a device that allows pilots to control leg motions by hand at the cyclic. Photos by Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post

McQuillan, it turned out, is the designer of a prosthetic device called the HeliLeg, which allows paraplegics to manually operate the leg controls of rotorcraft. It’s a device that is custom-fitted to each pilot, and portable for use in any number of craft.

The two  found a flight school, TYJ Global in Broomfield, where Fennig could learn to fly with the HeliLeg. And now they’re all in it together, said  TYJ co-owner Gina Fyola. They have founded the nonprofit Return Flight Foundation. And they intend Fennig to be the first of many disabled pilots —  particularly U.S. veterans —  to fly again.

Fyola’s husband, Mike, a combat veteran who has 10 years’ experience with law enforcement in Denver and Jefferson counties, is deeply committed to helping veterans.

At first Fennig couldn’t find out much  about McQuillan, an electrical engineer and Royal Air Force pilot, before he broke his spine in a service-related accident in 1988.

But Fennig didn’t give up. From his home in Bryant, Ind., he tracked down McQuillan, a sometimes resident of Colorado Springs, sometimes overseas.

Captain Stewart McQuillan, inventor of the HeliLeg.

McQuillan was trying out semi-retirement, devoting himself to fishing and serving as an aerospace instructor at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Fennig waits in the cockpit of an R44 helicopter prior a training flight at TYJ Global in Broomfield. At left is his flight instructor retired CW3 Mike Fyola assessing the weather with fellow instructor Rich Snelling.

“I was very, very comfortable before I was dragged out,” McQuillan said. “But at the end of the day, there is a need. There are a lot of guys who are busted up who want to get back to normal life.”

During the first days of his training earlier this month, Fennig began piloting a Robinson R-44 helicopter using the HeliLeg.  He already has a job lined up with Copters for A Cause, a Denver  nonprofit that offers rides and tours to help raise money for various charities.

Copters for a Cause has agreed to hire Return Flight pilots as they complete training, Fyola said. There is a shortage of helicopter pilots in the U.S., she said, and by her estimates there are hundreds of disabled pilots who could serve again.

However, the four-week program is costly, an estimated $60,000 if the trainee is already a helicopter pilot. Each FAA-approved, battery-powered, pneumatically operated HeliLeg costs $30,000.

Fennig’s family and the Westchester United Methodist Church church back home  raised $18,000 for his training. He needs about $15,000 more to achieve rating as a private pilot.

Fennig talks with other pilots while he waits in the hangar for a training flight at TYJ Global in Broomfield, CO.

Veterans other than pilots, and vets without disabilities, could also receive training and jobs in Return Flight workshops, including an auto shop, McQuillan said.

“A lot of the guys coming back from war know what it’s like lying in a hospital bed wondering what they’re going to do,” McQuillan said. “These guys will be trained and put into jobs —  engineers, mechanics, sheet-metal workers.”

McQuillan, whose legs were crushed while he was checking a problem with an RAF Tornado GR1  combat aircraft during a scramble, was told by the military and doctors he would never fly again.

“I didn’t believe it,” he said. “Almost everybody we’ll use has been thrown on the scrap heap. They won’t stay there.”

Electa Draper: 303-954-1276 or edraper@denverpost.com

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About Lee Ann Colacioppo

I am the Senior Editor/News at the Denver Post. I have been at The Post sincd 1999 in a variety of positions, including city editor and investigations editor. I previously worked at The Des Moines Register, Greenville, S.C., News and Kingsport, Tenn., Times-News. I'am a Denver native and graduate of Drake University in Des Moines. View all posts by Lee Ann Colacioppo →
  • Anonymous

     I’m commenting on behalf of wounded warriors in an effort to help promote and support service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses. Many wounded warriors are coming home, getting out of the military and jobs are very limited. Therefore many have decided to start their own businesses in an attempt to survive and support their families. In an effort to help, we have created the Wounded Warrior Directory at VeteransDirectory.com. Please help us let others know about these businesses and this cause. Thank you!