Wheatbelt hearts to soar

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

A the end of an often deserted airstrip, in the heart of the central Wheatbelt, a gleaming white hangar sits protectively over one of the State's most hidden treasures.

It seems an unlikely fit for a small rural town, but hiding behind the huge sliding hangar doors is a world of opportunity for those whose dreams may have previously been shattered. Inside the hangar are gliders that have been purpose- built for people with a disability.

Quietly spoken Irishman Damien O'Reilly has self-funded the entire project, from the massive million dollar hanger to the specially engineered gliders and all the associated equipment needed to take people with disabilities on the flight of a lifetime.

The semi-retired mining executive, who emigrated to Queensland at 20 years of age, partly credits Australia's excellent education system with his rise to be a significant player in the mining industry.

He is also a humble philanthropist and qualified gliding instructor, and simply believes now is his time to say thank you.

"I was given a lot of opportunity coming to Australia and this is my modest way of saying thank you," he said.

Inspired by a brother with disabilities, Mr O'Reilly's company, SoarAbility, offers free glider flights to people living with a disability.

"I'm passionate about gliding, and I also understand the stress of having a disabled person in the family," he said.

"If you can give just one family some respite from the trauma, the stress and the sadness, then it's all worth it. I take these people on a flight, and the joy on their faces, and on the faces of their parents when they see their children liberated through this experience is a wonderful thing."

A walk through the hangar shows Mr O'Reilly has thought of everything.

A motorised harness in a large frame allows a paraplegic to be independent when lifting themselves into the aircraft.

"The harness is not invasive. It preserves people's dignity and they can operate the system themselves if they wish to," Mr O'Reilly said.

The gliders are fully equipped with hand-held controls, and one glider has seats side by side to accommodate clients who require regular personal contact during the flight.

Mr O'Reilly also owns the only glider aircraft in Australia that has forward and rear hand controls, in the hope that one day there can be a paraplegic gliding instructor in the back seat.

While the SoarAbility business is still in its infancy, Mr O'Reilly already flies with clients who have a range of disabilities. He regularly hosts members of the Acquired Brain Injury Group, with 50 per cent of those being paraplegics as a result of a road accident.

Mr O'Reilly said he chose the Cunderdin Airfield for many reasons, not least of which was the lack of air traffic.

"I had to consider numerous things when I made my decision to come out here and I did a lot of research," he said.

"In my role with mining companies I've been to most airfields in the State, and Cunderdin really was the standout option. This community is a hidden gem.

"The Royal Flying Doctor Service is able to land here, and the town has a hospital, which is important when dealing with people who have a disability.

"The other standout feature was the ability to out-land, meaning that I can bring the glider down in most paddocks surrounding the town since it's so flat."

Cunderdin deputy shire president and farmer Dennis Whisson believes SoarAbility has been flying under the radar for far too long.

"Damien's vision and passion is an inspiration and we hope SoarAbility will remain in the community for many years to come," Mr Whisson said.

Mr O'Reilly is now looking further afield to South Australia, where he is attempting to replicate the venture.

"The SoarAbility charter is simply that you make a living by what you get, you get a life by what you give," he said.

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails