Even a plane crash couldn’t stop her do­ing what she loves most

Reader's Digest International - - Front Page - BY ELODIE CHERMANN & STÉPHANE CALMEYN

EYES SPARKLING, 40-yearold Dorine Bour­ne­ton leaves her wheel­chair on the tar­mac and heaves her­self onto the wing of her Piper air­craft. Grasp­ing her life­less legs, she swings them into the cock­pit, se­cures them with a strip of Vel­cro, then set­tles into the pi­lot’s seat. It’s 3.30 p.m. on June 19, 2015. Crowds are gath­ered at Le Bour­get for the Paris Air Show, the world’s largest. With a roar, the Al­pha Jet air­craft of the Pa­trouille de France (the French Air Force’s aer­o­batic team) belch out trails of blue, white and red smoke over­head. Don­ning her hel­met, she ra­dios the con­trol tower, “Le Bour­get Tower, Fox Papa Kilo Echo. Re­quest clear­ance for take­off.”

Her heart is thump­ing, but her tone is calm. In a few min­utes, she will demon­strate her aer­o­batic skills. For the Paris Air Show, it’s a first. Dorine is the only para­plegic woman pi­lot in the world to do aer­o­bat­ics. “Fox Papa Kilo Echo, cleared for take­off,” re­sponds the con­trol tower. “Have a good flight!” Dorine takes a deep breath and switches on the ig­ni­tion.

Few of those watch­ing from the ground know the chal­lenges she has over­come to be here, start­ing with nearly los­ing her life in a sim­i­lar air­craft 24 years ago.

THE AC­CI­DENT HAP­PENED on Sun­day, May 12, 1991, a day that seemed re­luc­tant to dawn. “The weather’s turn­ing. If it gets any worse, we won’t be able to take off,” Jean-Paul Bour­ne­ton told his daugh­ter dur­ing their early-morn­ing drive from Noirétable to Aul­nat Air­field in Cler­mont-Fer­rand, in south­ern cen­tral France.

Six­teen-year-old Dorine sim­ply shrugged her shoul­ders. A Piper and a Cessna were await­ing the fa­ther and daugh­ter, who were united by a com­mon love for fly­ing. The planes would take them and five other mem­bers of


their flight club to visit the Mar­seilles-Marig­nane Canadair wa­ter bomber base—a visit noth­ing in the world would have in­duced Dorine to miss.

Jean-Paul in­stalled him­self on board the Cessna. Dorine leaped into the back of the Piper. The planes took off around 8 a.m. Dorine un­fas­tened her seat belt. As a begin­ner pi­lot fly­ing as a pas­sen­ger, she wanted to take the ut­most ad­van­tage of the ex­pe­ri­ence. Soon they were pass­ing over the forested foothills of 1,750-me­ter Mont Mézenc.

Ahead, an im­mense cush­ion of

cloud, what French pi­lots call a “fat potato,” barred the hori­zon. Me­te­o­rol­o­gists at Aul­nat ad­vised cir­cling it, but the cap­tain, an ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lot, de­cided to tackle the cloud head-on.

The plane’s wing tips van­ished, as if swal­lowed up by the first strands of mist. Dorine felt her pulse speed up. Sobered by her own fear, Dorine sat back silently and fas­tened her belt.

The Cessna was far be­hind and still out­side the cloud bank. Trapped within the cot­ton wool, all his reference points gone, the Piper’s cap­tain at­tempted to turn around. The last thing Dorine heard was the copi­lot shout­ing into his hel­met mike:

“Christ, you’re go­ing to bring us down!” The Piper plowed into the moun­tain­side, de­cap­i­tat­ing firs be­fore crash­ing into a rock face at 1,400 me­ters. Both wings and the fuel reser­voirs were torn off.

Pro­tected by her safety har­ness and the re­sis­tance of the left rear fuse­lage, Dorine was the only sur­vivor. Semi­con­scious, she thought about the bac­calau­réat—ex­ams she was due to sit in June and for which she had not yet be­gun to pre­pare.

At Marig­nane Air­port there was no sign of the Piper. Dorine’s fa­ther, feel­ing the first pangs of anx­i­ety, raised the alert. Jean-Paul’s group then took off again to look for a crash.

Shortly be­fore noon, searchers in two he­li­copters and a light air­craft flew off into pea-soup fog. On the ground, 49 fire­fight­ers and an emer­gency med­i­cal ser­vice team be­gan check­er­ing the moun­tain­ous ter­rain. Just af­ter 8 p.m., a lo­cal ham ra­dio op­er­a­tor who’d joined the search be­gan get­ting a faint sig­nal from the dam­aged emer­gency bea­con, which he fol­lowed to the wreck of the Piper. Twenty min­utes later, searchers trans­ported Dorine to the hos­pi­tal at Le Puy, where her fam­ily was al­ready wait­ing.

THE RA­DI­OL­O­GIST came to see Jean-Paul and Dorine’s mother, Is­abelle, at 11 p.m. “It’s the spinal cord,” he said. Is­abelle fainted. She un­der­stood that for Dorine, it meant paral­y­sis.

A huge bruise had formed around the frac­ture. It was de­cided to op­er­ate that night to try to drain it. Two days later, Dorine was trans­ferred to Cler­mont-Fer­rand so that metal pins could be in­serted into her back to sup­port the crushed ver­te­bra. The pins would stay in her back for a year.

Dorine had no idea how se­ri­ous her con­di­tion was. Af­ter a three-week con­va­les­cence, Jean-Paul ac­com­pa­nied his daugh­ter by am­bu­lance to a phys­i­cal re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter at Saint-Ge­nis-Laval out­side Lyon. They drove past Aul­nat air­field.

“Want to go and take a look?” he asked. Friends had pre­pared a lit­tle cel­e­bra­tion at the Aero Club, with cham­pagne. And when some­one called out: “Do you want to fly, Dorine?” an un­hesi­tat­ing and de­ter­mined “Yes!” rang out in re­ply.

Her fa­ther and an in­struc­tor helped

her into a plane. With­out a sec­ond’s hes­i­ta­tion, she took the pi­lot’s seat. With her left foot in plas­ter and plac­ing her catheter on her right, she calmly flew the plane for a half-hour. She only ap­peared anx­ious for a fleet­ing sec­ond, when some cu­mu­lus came into view. “That cloud, over there. Will it catch up with me?” she asked.

At Saint-Ge­nis-Laval, how­ever, when the in­valid’s chair, which from now on was to be her daily com­pan­ion, was wheeled into her room for the first time, it fi­nally dawned on Dorine that there was a trial in store for her.

“Is there re­ally no other way?” she asked the depart­ment head.

The an­swer—“not for the mo­ment, at least”—came as a blow.

Dorine be­gan stick­ing posters of air­planes all around her bed. Day af­ter day, she scrupu­lously did her ex­er­cises with the sin­gle-mind­ed­ness of a pi­lot plot­ting his flight plan.

“I can never walk again, but I will fly,” she promised her­self.

TWO YEARS LATER, in July 1993, she moved to Toulouse, home of one of the three French Aero Clubs with planes equipped for hand­i­capped pi­lots. The small-town girl had come to one of France’s largest cities alone.

She met Pierre Har­quin, a for­mer test me­chanic and pri­vate flight in­struc­tor, at the Toulouse-Midi-Pyrenées Aero Club. To Har­quin she seemed so tiny in her wheel­chair that it made him want to weep. He thought they would just cir­cle around once to please her and that would be it.

But from the very first flight he was struck by Dorine’s hap­pi­ness and ease. She han­dled the plane gen­tly, two fin­gers on the stick, like hold­ing a ball-point pen—the way good pi­lots do. From that in­stant, Har­quin, an old ad­ven­turer with 13,000 fly­ing hours, ded­i­cated him­self to turn­ing Dorine Bour­ne­ton, the begin­ner with the bro­ken body, into an out­stand­ing avi­a­tor.

In France, am­a­teur pi­lots fly an av­er­age of 15 hours a year. For nearly a year Dorine pushed her­self to tot up al­most 15 hours a month, throw­ing into the hobby she so pas­sion­ately loved her dis­abil­ity pen­sion and part of the com­pen­sa­tion she had re­ceived af­ter the ac­ci­dent.

She had to learn to hoist her­self onto a wing, then into the cock­pit us­ing only her arms. Then, with­out us­ing her legs, she had to learn how to han­dle a 100-horse­power Rally, an air­craft fa­mil­iar to her from be­fore her ac­ci­dent, by means of con­trols adapted for use by the hand­i­capped and ap­proved by the DGAC (French Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity).

Not con­tent merely to teach her to mas­ter the ma­chine, Har­quin also helped her un­der­stand what makes a plane stay aloft. For each hour of fly­ing, he gave her four hours of the­ory. He tire­lessly ex­plained to her the in­ter­ac­tion be­tween wings and air cur­rents, the con­trol panel’s elec­tri­cal cir­cuits,

the flow of fuel through the car­bu­re­tor. Fi­nally, the in­struc­tor taught Dorine to mas­ter her fear of clouds.

“We’re not go­ing to land in that!” she gasped, spot­ting a shower over Mois­sac.

“You have to be able to cope with all kinds of weather con­di­tions, even those you weren’t ex­pect­ing,” came the an­swer.

IN APRIL 1995 she passed the test for her pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cense, which al­lowed her to carry pas­sen­gers but not to charge for the flight. The DGAC didn’t per­mit dis­abled peo­ple to be­come pro­fes­sional pi­lots. In an ac­ci­dent a pi­lot had to be able to evac­u­ate pas­sen­gers. For Dorine this would be im­pos­si­ble, DGAC told her.

Dorine con­tained her fury but spoke out about the un­fair­ness as of­ten as she could and con­tacted peo­ple she thought she might re­cruit for her cause. She re­ceived me­dia cov­er­age.

In Septem­ber 2002, she launched a book, La couleur préférée de ma mère, a mem­oir about her love for air­planes, the ac­ci­dent and how she met the chal­lenge of fly­ing again. At Mureaux air field in the Yve­lines, 40 kilo­me­ters from Paris, a man came up to her and in­tro­duced him­self as Philippe Gagne. “I’m a pi­lot too,” he said. “I saw you on TV. How are you get­ting on with your cam­paign for dis­abled peo­ple to be­come pro­fes­sional pi­lots?” Dorine re­sponded wearily, “It’s go­ing to take some time.”

Gagne went off for a mo­ment, then re­turned, look­ing thought­ful. “I could speak to Do­minique Bussereau, my brother-in-law. He’s Sec­re­tary of State for Trans­port.”

Three months later, Dorine was ush­ered into a re­cep­tion room in the im­pres­sive Min­istry build­ing on Boule­vard Saint-Ger­main in Paris, ac­com­pa­nied by one of France’s first fe­male air­line pi­lots, Brigitte Rev­el­lin-Fal­coz. With a rac­ing heart, Dorine briefly told her story to Bussereau, and then burst out, “With another para­plegic pi­lot, I fly aerial for­est-fire sur­veil­lance mis­sions for the Lot-et-Garonne fire ser­vice as an un­paid vol­un­teer. Is

it ac­cept­able that dis­abled pi­lots make th­ese flights un­paid and un­reg­is­tered?”

The ar­gu­ment hit home. Bussereau promised to get back to her quickly. He kept his word. The DGAC amended the reg­u­la­tions. On Novem­ber 23, 2003, in the same re­cep­tion room, sit­ting op­po­site a hand­ful of guests, Dorine heard Do­minique Bussereau read Ar­ti­cle 1 of the min­is­te­rial or­der al­low­ing dis­abled peo­ple to “ful­fil the func­tions of cap­tain on sin­gle-en­gine, sin­gle-pi­lot air­craft for trans­port­ing mail and freight.”

A para­plegic could now make a liv­ing as a pro­fes­sional pi­lot. Dorine strug­gled to hold back the tears.

AF­TER HER VIC­TORY at the Min­istry, Dorine set to work, pre­par­ing for the pro­fes­sional pi­lot’s exam. The Mer­moz In­sti­tute, which trains air­line pi­lots, sent her 15 tech­ni­cal man­u­als. The stack of sci­en­tific books was daunt­ing. The strug­gles she’d been through since the ac­ci­dent had dis­tanced her from the habit of study­ing. She felt un­able to rise to the chal­lenge.

The fol­low­ing June, Dorine mar­ried Bruno Dupont, a com­puter pro­gram­mer eight years her senior, a kind and thought­ful man. Two years later, she gave birth to Char­line, and for the first time in 15 years, Dorine for­got her dis­abil­ity. When, 14 months later, Char­line raised her­self up on her legs, it was as if Dorine her­self had started to walk again. She ca­ressed her child, mur­mur­ing, “Take care of your body. It’s the most pre­cious thing you have.”

The thought of another fly­ing ac­ci­dent that would leave her tod­dler an or­phan was too much to bear. In 2006, she banned her­self from fly­ing.

“DO YOU FANCY hav­ing a go at aer­o­bat­ics, my dear?” On this Sun­day in Fe­bru­ary 2014 at the Mureaux air­field, Guillaume Feral weighed his words. A long­time friend who was also a pi­lot de­spite be­ing a para­plegic, he spe­cial­ized in fly­ing man­u­ally, where hand con­trols re­place foot ped­als.

As far back as 1997, Dorine had ap­proached him about learn­ing aer­o­bat­ics but Feral had replied, “Aer­o­bat­ics are for­bid­den for hand­i­capped pi­lots!” Thanks to Dorine, the rules had changed in 2003.

Although seven years had passed since she last flew a plane, Dorine, now 39, re­con­nected im­me­di­ately with her dream. Her daugh­ter was grow­ing up; the fear of leav­ing her an or­phan had dis­si­pated. “Am I not too old?” Dorine asked, anx­iously. Guillaume smiled and replied, “You’ve got what it takes!”

But aer­o­bat­ics? No para­plegic woman had ever come to grips with it be­fore. She was both thrilled and fear­ful, but her love of fly­ing had resur­faced. She set out to con­quer the skies once more—learn­ing to pitch up the nose of her air­craft, then dive to­ward the ground be­fore pulling up into ver­ti­cal to make a loop. Head up­side down, stom­ach in knots, she ex­pe­ri­enced com­pletely new sen­sa­tions.

“Aer­o­bat­ics is all about good hand­eye co­or­di­na­tion,” her new in­struc­tor Jac­ques Dugué told her. “Ig­nore the sen­sory in­for­ma­tion that doesn’t match what your eyes are telling you.”

Trem­bling and con­fused at first, she per­se­vered with the train­ing, filled with the same joy of learn­ing as in her first fly­ing lessons. She per­suaded spon­sors to fi­nance her train­ing and also the adap­ta­tion of her air­craft, which be­longed to the French Aer­o­bat­ics As­so­ci­a­tion.

A plane took away the use of her legs, she once said af­ter a par­tic­u­larly thrilling flight, but fly­ing gave her ev­ery­thing back, a hun­dred times over. “Life has taught me that dreams are the pre­lude to re­al­ity.”

THE DREAM, FOR DORINE, is the green light she re­ceives from the avi­a­tion author­ity to take part in the Paris Air Show at Le Bour­get on June 19, 2015.

At 3.40 p.m., her fa­ther, daugh­ter, in­struc­tors and friends stand on the tar­mac gaz­ing up­ward, along with thou­sands of spec­ta­tors. At 500 me­ters alti­tude, in an azure blue sky, Dorine ex­e­cutes chan­delles, loops and rolls.

Free as air, she dances in the sky.

Dorine Bour­ne­ton at the Tous­sus-le-No­ble Air­port in 2016

Bour­ne­ton, a fire and res­cue pi­lot, with a col­league in Ca­hors, France, in Au­gust 2002, the year her mem­oir was pub­lished.

June 19, 2015: Bour­ne­ton at Le Bour­get af­ter her Paris Air Show per­for­mance, a world­wide first by a para­plegic woman.

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