'Miracle': Man Achieves Lifelong Dream to Fly
BY JOHN CHAPPELL
A lifelong dream came true last Thursday in the skies over Carthage.
"It was a real miracle," said Kay Wilson, "a miracle that literally came from the sky."
She and her husband Dan, have a son, Adam, who has been living with muscular dystrophy since birth. It is a hereditary condition that has left him wheelchair-bound and unable to breathe on his own.
"All his life, Adam has dreamed of one thing," Roland Gilliam said. "He's dreamed of someday flying."
Gilliam, who built and operated Gilliam-McConnell "International" Air Field in Carthage, has spent the past 15 years trying to find some way to make that dream come true. Wilson was a teen when Gilliam started looking for some aircraft - plane, helicopter, anything - with the capability of carrying a boy in a wheelchair aboard.
"I asked the Army, the Air Force, everybody," Gilliam said. "I asked the Reserves, but all I ever got was that there would be too much paperwork. The last time, it was just no, they couldn't do it."
That curt answer didn't sit well with Gilliam.
"It made me mad, to tell the truth," he said. "They can take movie stars and congressmen up, but nobody had room for a boy in a wheelchair."
It is a very special wheelchair. Nobody was making wheelchairs for people dependent on ventilation systems to put air in their lungs. Dan Wilson invented one for his son and now markets it under the name "Freedomvent."
"He now attends church, dines out, visits friends, goes on vacation and much, much more," Dan Wilson said. "Our goal is to allow the ventilator user and their family to live and interact with life as much as possible."
They also make a shower cover and a rain cover so a ventilator-dependent person can take a shower, or prevent the ventilator from getting wet if the person gets caught in a sudden rainstorm.
"I think of myself as a trailblazer," Adam Wilson said. "My dad invented these things for me, but now others benefit."
One of his heroes is the late Christopher Reeves, and his ventilation therapy is now under the care of the therapist who helped the actor.
"Adam always has had a real positive attitude," his mother says. "With the new research they are doing, he hopes, if he could get injections, he could move his hands, just move his hands. We have had a lot of really good people around him. The Lord provided them."
One disappointment hovered over Wilson. Gilliam hadn't found anybody who could take him aloft despite years of effort. Wilson will be 31 in June and had never had a chance at flight - until Thursday.
"I had a call from Quest Aircraft Co. asking if they could use my air field to demonstrate a new plane for the Army," Gilliam said. "I said that would be all right."
Gilliam-McConnell - named jointly for its pilot builder and World War I pilot James Rogers McConnell, who helped found the famed Lafayette Escadrille - sees regular Army use helping to train future Green Berets.
Quest landed its bright orange and gray prop jet, and Gilliam took note of one particular feature.
"It had a big door," he said. "I'd left there to go talk with our town manager and was in the middle of a conversation with Carol (Sparks) when it hit me - big door. Big enough for a wheelchair."
Gilliam left the Town Hall, went back to the air field and asked the Quest people for a favor: Could they possibly give Adam Wilson something he had always wanted, something most people take for granted? Could they give him an airplane ride?
They said they could. A quick phone call brought the Wilsons to the air field. It isn't far from Wilson's Garage on Summer Hill Church Road. By the time their van was pulling up on the far side of the field from Pik-n-Pig, Gilliam was setting up a portable ramp to the plane.
Wilson and his wheelchair with its lithium-battery-powered ventilator attached weigh 700 pounds. Gilliam and Dan Wilson, with the help of Quest officials and a neighbor or two, trundled Adam aboard and locked his chair in place. This aircraft can hold 10 passengers when all seats are in place. Its extra seats were removed temporarily to make room for this special passenger.
The wide door slid shut, and the prop began to spin. A brisk breeze was blowing across the field, and there were more than a few darkening clouds overhead, but the sun peeked through from time to time nonetheless. Adam's ride might have a bump or two, but it looked safe to fly.
"Doesn't look like it's bouncing around," Gilliam said, gazing skyward. "Don't know what he's doing for turbulence. I have been flying 53 years, and when an airplane cranks up I stop and look."
Takeoff went smoothly, and the tour took Adam and his father for a trip around the county.
"We saw Robbins and Carthage," said test pilot Kenny Stidham. "We saw Pinehurst, and the Carolina."
Later, after landing, the smile on Adam Wilson's face said more than his words.
"Oh, man," he said. "Oh, man."
Contact John Chappell by e-mail at email@example.com.
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