'Cockpit for Antoine' puts disabled teen in pilot seat
Air Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces, Bell Helicopter among collaborators to build customized wheelchair
An unlikely group of companies, including Air Canada, the Canadian Armed Forces and Bell Helicopter, have teamed up to build a customized wheelchair for a teenage drone enthusiast.
Fifteen-year-old Antoine Dupont, who has muscular dystrophy, has spent the past few years in a wheelchair.
But his limited mobility hasn't stopped him from pursuing his love of aviation. He is an avid drone pilot, flying the small crafts and shooting videos with his father Stéphane.
Hoping for a few decals
Two years ago, family friend Hal Newman learned that Antoine would be needing a new wheelchair and began contacting companies to see how they could get him an electric one that would give him more independence.
Knowing how much Antoine loved flying, he said he "jokingly wrote an email, with zero expectations" to a number of aviation companies. He was hoping for a few decals, but lightheartedly asked whether they had a spare pilot's seat.
He could not have predicted what happened next.
"The phones just started ringing," Newman said.
He was contacted by companies that he hadn't emailed in the first place, wondering how they could get involved.
"Are you the guy working on the wheelchair project?" they asked.
In the end, Air Canada, Bell Helicopter and Sierra Hotel Aeronautics collaborated on the project, along with the Canadian Armed Forces in Bagotville Que.
AirBase Services and Zen Metal Technologies designed the custom prototype, which features a real pilot seat.
They called the project "a cockpit for Antoine."
Newman said the experience "restored my faith in humanity."
"I'm of the belief that the vast majority of people wake up in the morning and want to do something good," he said, "and all you have to do is ask."
'Hard not to get emotional'
Frédérick Bélanger has worked as a pilot for Air Canada for 20 years. He had just stepped off a long-haul flight from Tokyo but wanted to be there when Antoine saw the chair for the first time.
Surrounded by a crowd and flashing cameras, Antoine at first hesitated when asked whether he wanted to try out his new chair.
So Bélanger jumped in, demonstrating how to do up the five-point safety belt, the same that he would sit in on a Boeing 787.
The back of the chair is sheepskin, soft and breathable, and designed for pilots, who often remain seated for 12 to 13 hours.
"I've been flying airplanes for 20 years," said Bélanger, "but events like today, [they] really touch me."
Claude Fournier, the vice president of sales and marketing at Airbase Services, was part of the team that designed the unique chair. He said that after presenting Antoine with his new chair after months of work, "it's hard not to get emotional."
"It was a no-brainer to get involved with this," he added.
Stéphane Dupont said that when he heard about how many people wanted to get involved to help his son, he was "really surprised."
He said that while he was excited that his son would get to spend his days in a real pilot's seat, what really mattered to him was his comfort.
Antoine would often complain of back pain after long days in his old chair. But as Bélanger noted, pilot chairs are designed for long hauls.
"I've been behind Antoine for the past eight years pushing him," Dupont said. "Now, I'll be beside him."