NO FEAR OF FLYING
Even a plane crash couldn’t stop her doing what she loves most
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
THE PIPER PLOWED INTO THE MOUNTAINSIDE AT 1,400 METERS. BOTH WINGS AND THE FUEL RESERVOIRS WERE TORN OFF.
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.