By Mike Taibbi, NBC News correspondent
Driving out from New York City to a tiny airfield in Fairfield, Pennsylvania, just past Gettysburg, I had an idea what to expect...how the story would go. There was a character at the story's center... a wheelchair-bound former Navy pilot named Richard "Footch" Fucci who'd learned to fly specially-adapted gliders and believed others with disabling injuries or illnesses could benefit the way he had from experiencing the life-affirming glory of free flight. I'd been in gliders a number of times and it never got old: you're up there, circling and soaring on the thermals or the waves of wind, just like the birds who owned the sky first. It's thrilling, no question, similar to hang-gliding in the sensation of pure flight.
Footch was a great salesman for the sport he loved, and that he'd decided to pass along to others. In the past couple of years, as the events director for the group called Freedom's Wings, Footch had introduced his sport to well over a hundred people... men, women, kids...some of them wounded war vets and others enduring challenges in their everyday lives from paralysis or debilitating illnesses like cystic fibrosis or spina bifida. Now he and his group were trying to find a way to spread their message and their program for people with disabilities even further, by affiliating with the scores of other soaring groups organized across the country.
"Back in June," he told us, "a young woman flew with us and afterward said, 'I can't get up on a curb [with her wheelchair], but I can fly an airplane!' And that captures our mission, the spirit of Freedom's Wings...to say 'What else can I do that I didn't think I could do because I had a disability?'"
So Footch lives that mission... showing a couple of Iraq War vets recovering from terrible injuries how to grab for an exhilarating experience, just as he had despite his own terrible injuries. The soldiers...Nick Paupore and Bruce Dunlap, who'd been driven out from Walter Reed Army Medical Center...were kids again, whooping and laughing and saying sure, they'll do it again and think about qualifying as glider pilots with their new Freedom's Wings friends. Footch beamed; it had worked again. Again, he'd made a difference in strangers' lives. He'd shown them that in this sport... a sport that needs a team on the ground and hours if not days of prep work so individual pilots can thrill to its gifts for however many minutes the prevailing winds allow... you can't tell in the air whether a pilot has the use of his legs or not.
But if Footch with his boundless energy was the engine for our story, his pal Bill Murphy was, to me, its complicated soul. When I first saw "Murph" he seemed to be frowning; he looked gruff, wary... you know the type. Anger in there, maybe just a history of it, but enough of it to make you think twice about approaching him carelessly. He had a service dog, a big friendly Labrador named Montana who helped him negotiate his chair in restaurants and in other crowded spots. Murph and I spent a fair amount of time just talking, no cameras. I'd driven out with my own dog Scoop, an ancient Pug on his last legs with kidney failure but still delighted to be alive, and Scoop found a new friend in Montana.
But in my time with Murph I didn't hear any anger at all, just the story of a guy who'd had his share of life's ups and downs and who on this beautiful day was enjoying the heck out of one of the up days for sure. Murph said yes, he'd been angry in the past. Really angry about a lot of things, starting with the helicopter accident three decades earlier that ended his active service as a Marine and that sent him on a downward spiral marked by lawsuits, a failed marriage, and that damned wheelchair. But when he finally got up in the air and got the gift that soaring gives... on the good days... he found he wasn't just leaving his wheelchair on the ground below, but his anger too.
I said, "So how does it feel, relying only on yourself up there?"
"Hard for me to describe," he said, and then described it. "It makes my heart soar. I know, in the plane flying around, I'm just the same as anybody else."
He laughed, and he had a good laugh, unselfconscious and heartfelt. "You're searching for clouds, watching for birds and planes, and the chair is not a factor. And when you come back in to land, you look down and you see your chair sitting there on the side of the runway and you go, 'I don't need you!' And it feels great!"
Later we listened to his voice from the cockpit. "Whoooooo, baby!" he shouted, "here we go... we're havin' lots of lift... i'm havin' a helluva time back here!" No one listening to the pure joy in his voice would doubt that.
We had a full day of it, small cameras mounted on the wing and in the cockpit and the big camera aiming up from the ground as Footch and his Freedom's Wings friends made new friends... some for the long haul, it seemed clear... by towing them up into the sunlit skies and riding the autumn breezes above the gorgeous Pennsylvania foliage, and letting their guests know that it was all available to them too, if they wanted it.
I went up for one flight, and was reminded of how enjoyable an experience soaring is; and our producer Joo Lee had her maiden glider flight too, and except for a few bounces and tight turns gave it her own thumbs up. The sun went down over a barbecue of hot dogs and brats, and beer and laughter and fellowship, next to a hangar full of a half-dozen gliders that were parked close to each other, motionless of course, but just for awhile.