Sunday, May 22, 2011

In Texas, first amputee becomes Air Force pilot

From the San Antonio Express-News:

Talk with Air Force 1st Lt. Ryan McGuire (pictured) about flying and it becomes clear he could be any young officer training to be a pilot.

There's a wistful sound in his voice and his eyes get that dreamy look as he sees himself in the cockpit.

“I love the sound of taking off, I love the feeling of taking off,” said McGuire, 25, of the Woodlands. “I love the power of the engines.”

Fascinated with flight since childhood, he became a pilot May 20 in a ceremony at Laughlin AFB in Del Rio. He's not just another fledgling flier to survive a rigorous training course, McGuire is one of a kind — the first Air Force amputee to earn his wings.

His triumph was born in a determination to overcome a series of seemingly insurmountable obstacles — the first of which was staying in the Air Force. Doing that involved learning to walk again, but McGuire did better, finishing a 26.2-mile hike a little more than three months after taking his first steps on a prosthetic leg.

“His story of perseverance is amazing,” said a fellow classmate, 1st Lt. Bryan Heidtman, 25, of Sylvania, Ohio.

“He never gave up,” said Col. Michael Frankel, commander of Laughlin's 47th Flying Training Wing. “He never lost hope.”

McGuire's odyssey started on Labor Day weekend 2009. After a day of tubing on Amistad Reservoir, he and four friends were headed back to a marina on their power boat. Suddenly, a rope McGuire had been holding in the rear of the boat went airborne and, along with it, a tube.

The rope wrapped around his leg from his foot to knee, slamming him into the side of the boat. McGuire's right foot slammed into a speaker and his pelvis hit the side of the boat, fracturing bones in both places and dislocating one hip.

“And then (the rope) continued to unravel and pulled me into the air over my friend's head, and then I went head-first into the water right next to the prop,” McGuire said.

“I can specifically remember every second of it, every millisecond, and I remember looking at the prop and thinking I wasn't going to come out of the water again,” he continued. “I was going to die.”

McGuire was in trouble, but the depth of his injuries would even elude physicians at Brooke Army Medical Center. His foot was oozing blood but for some he reason felt no pain.

The fractures and dislocation complicated rescue efforts. They were 40 minutes from the marina, with no cell phone service, and couldn't start the boat's engine because McGuire's legs dangled next to it. Pulling him into the boat was out of the question because any movement triggered intense pain.

A feeling of hopelessness swept over McGuire. The situation was grave, he realized, and he wouldn't get to a hospital soon. Oddly, he felt calm and the pain began to dissipate. Shock set in.

A pilot in training, 1st Lt. Jennifer Oeffner had a rotten job as a lake patrol boat slowly headed to the marina. Each wave that rocked the boat brought intense pain to McGuire.

“Every time we hit some rough water it was like excruciating for him and he just kept passing out,” said Oeffner, 24, of Long Island, N.Y.

She slapped him.

Doctors initially were optimistic, but severe vascular damage had been done to his foot. McGuire opted to amputate part of his right foot in hopes of saving the leg, but a second operation was needed.

“I woke up from the surgery, my mom was next to me, and it seemed like I wasn't in that much pain from it and I was confused about that, and so I turned to my mom and I said, ‘How did the surgery go?'” McGuire recalled. “And she just started crying.”

The leg was amputated below the knee, and he was sent to the Center for the Intrepid. McGuire began rehabilitation there thinking his flying days were done, but he was inspired by amputees on the rebound — one a fellow pilot.

“I knew there were people, but they were already certified pilots in the Air Force when their accidents happened,” he said. “So I knew that me not being a pilot, not having my wings yet, was going to be an issue, but it did seem like it wasn't hopeless anymore.”

At the CFI, McGuire's met his physical therapist.

“I always ask the guy what are your goals in life?” said Alicia White, 29, of San Antonio. “And Ryan, the first thing was, ‘I want to fly planes' and the second was, ‘I ran a marathon before; I want to run one again.'”

Though he had walked only a couple of miles at a time, she helped quickly prepare him for the much longer Bataan Memorial Death March in White Sands, N.M., in March 2010. In mid-August a board let him remain in the Air Force, and he ran the marathon as few weeks later.

He next turned to flying. McGuire handled a simulator and then flew for real with Lt. Col. Ken Shugart, a veteran instructor pilot.

“I wouldn't say it made me nervous. Certainly going into it, I think I'm wanting to watch him and make sure there aren't any issues going on,” said Shugart, 41, of DeSoto.

There weren't.

Armed with his wings, McGuire will learn to fly the C-17 Globemaster III. As graduation neared, he wasn't quite giddy. But McGuire still is amazed about the day he got back into a cockpit for the first time since he was hurt.

It seems a tad surreal.

“I remember I got back on the ground and called my parents and told them that I had been able to do that, and that was just the coolest thing in the world,” McGuire said, adding, “I'd just flown a plane again after a year of thinking I wasn't going to.”