Paraplegic Veteran Breaks Barriers

Capt. Stewart McQuillan has a lot to be proud of. Not only is he a veteran of the RAF and USAF, serving as a fighter pilot, but also he is the first paraplegic to fly a helicopter and the first to build a helicopter.

When Stewart was serving in the Royal Air Force, his Tornado GR-1 broke apart upon takeoff. This resulted in a severe injury, crushing his spinal cord and leaving him partly paralyzed. Stewart quickly returned to aviation, eventually wanting to learn to fly helicopters. However, being a paraplegic, he knew that using the foot pedals wouldn’t be an easy task. Eventually, Stewart decided to talk to the Blue Eagles helicopter display team, which resulted in a device called the Aeroleg.

“I went down there, we had a few meetings with a few ideas, we did drawings, and they said, ‘Come back in a week,’” Stewart said. “I came back in a week, and they had already built this unit and [figured out] how we’d get the leg to work. We tried it out on the military Gazelles. We got it perfected.”

However, the work didn’t stop there. Being from England, Stewart tried to get it approved in the United Kingdom, but he ran into a series of issues. Luckily, Stewart’s machinery interested the U.K. surgeon general, who in turn connected Stewart with the U.S. surgeon general.

“We took it to California,” Stewart said. “We did all the testing in the desert and got the approval.”

Stewart didn’t want to stop there. Actually, his final goal was to build a community for veterans, modeled after the veterans’ villages after World War I. Stewart moved from group to group, hoping to find a team to put this together. Eventually, he met Sean McClung, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, and Kristen Christy, the 2018 U.S. Air Force Spouse of the Year. Together, they founded the National Veterans Vocational Village, NV3.

According to its website, “NV3 is a self-sustaining vocational training center and residential village that educates, employs, and houses disabled and injured veterans and those with invisible wounds, transitioning from military and first responder duties to civilian life.”

Based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the village will have restaurants, a bakery, a general store, and possibly a small airport. The goal is to give these veterans a sense of community and purpose, especially for those who have been injured.

“He feels a total outsider, alienated, because of his condition,” Stewart said. “Put him in an area where they’ve had the same experience, and you can help them along. It’s that kind of community. I was in a coma for six months, big deal, look at me now. It’s kind of a tough love thing, but helping.”

To help accomplish this goal, NV3 and partner Rotor X will be bringing a helicopter to 24 different VA spinal cord injury centers, where Stewart will fly. They hope to encourage veterans to “recapture the joys of flying and other vocations,” as well as raise money for the veterans’ village.

Sean, co-founder of NV3, reiterated the importance of programs like this.

“In one year, there are more veterans who commit suicide than there have been lost in combat since 9/11,” Sean said. “Part of the reason we’re doing what we’re doing is to get them out of despair, to give them a sense of community, a sense of purpose, a sense of hope.”

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