Paralysis can’t ground aviator

Published: September 9, 2006
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He returns to flying not long after road accident, will race in Nev. event

AVIATOR RETURNS AFTER WRECK Steve Griff never gave up hope when a trucker barreled into the back of his Chevy Silverado on N.C. 152 in Mooresville four years ago, paralyzing him from the chest down.

Never gave up hope of flying again, he said.

Griff has flown planes for 40 years, since he was 16, including as a 767 captain for US Airways, for whom he flew internationally.

“Fortunately, my hands and arms work fine,” Griff said last week at his Long Island Airpark, a grassy eastern Catawba County airstrip whose one end looks 100 feet down onto Lake Norman. Long Island, where Griff and wife, Dina, live, is a rural, unincorporated community.

Less than a year after the wreck, Griff was back in the air. He has since flown with friends to Florida, Guatemala and the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico.

Now he’s preparing for his biggest challenge yet.

He plans to race a plane in the 44th annual Reno National Championship Air Races in 2007 in Nevada. The speeds of the planes in some divisions exceed 500 mph. Griff said the one under construction for him in Florida will go at least 300 mph, double or triple the speed of similarly sized private planes .

Mike Moore of Mooresville-based AvWorks, which specializes in custom engines and components for experimental aircraft, is building his engine. Griff said he’s one of the industry’s best.

A spokeswoman for the competition said last week she couldn’t recall anyone with such paralysis having flown in the event.

Which suits Griff just fine.

“I want to show people with injuries that the sky is no longer the limit,” he said. “What they want to do can be achieved.”

Griff has been known to invite disabled kids to the airpark to fly with pilots who volunteer their time.

He hopes his flight will raise money and awareness for groups researching cures for spinal-cord injury. “If I can help other people, that would be wonderful,” he said.

Still, he said he’s not forging new ground, pointing to the California-based International Wheelchair Aviators organization. It has been around since 1972. The IWA maintains a list of at least 200 such pilots.

“Steve is flying for himself and also the 2.5 million people who have spinal cord injuries,” said Jeff Laffoon, whose RaceCorp Sports Management Inc. will help promote Griff’s effort at air shows across the country.

That effort might include Griff giving people rides in exchange for donations to a spinal-cord-injury research organization, Laffoon said.

Griff, whose wife, Dina, is a 20-year US Airways flight attendant, also flew for the former Piedmont Airlines and has done extreme aerobatics. So flying the plane won’t be the hardest part, he said. “The hardest part will be getting in and out,” he said.

His dream will cost about $1 million. Sponsors are climbing aboard, he said, and fellow pilots and others are assisting in various ways.

Friend Brad Womble, a corporate pilot, met Griff, me and a photographer at the airpark on Labor Day. Womble encouraged his friend on as Griff pushed his wheelchair down a road along the airpark runway.

“That’s what you gotta do, work those arms,” Womble said. “You got a year to go.”

Steve Griff’s Flight
For sponsorship and other details, call Jeff Laffoon of RaceCorp Sports Management Inc. at 704-799-3400

JOE MARUSAK