Flying High | Disabled get to experience thrill of paragliding

Marty Reilly, 53, has been in a wheelchair for 20 years, after a trampoline accident in which he landed on his head. Paralyzed from the neck down, his entire life changed in that moment.

Marty Reilly is ready for takeoff from the top of Tiger Mountain

Marty Reilly is ready for takeoff from the top of Tiger Mountain

Marty Reilly, 53, has been in a wheelchair for 20 years, after a trampoline accident in which he landed on his head. Paralyzed from the neck down, his entire life changed in that moment.

One of his sons, Chris, now 19, was in the womb so he has never known a different dad. Never mind his disability, because he’s always looking for something to do besides sitting at a computer. He works as an estimator for an electrical contractor from his home in Normandy Park.

“I’ve done drifting (an extreme motorsport) with a professional driver, I go fishing in Westport once a year and I’ve done a tandem glider,” Reilly said.

His other son, Andy, 22, went flying with Seattle Paragliding in Issaquah earlier in July. Little did Andy know, until then, that the following week, Chris Santacroce, one of the best paraglider pilots in the world, would be at Seattle Paragliding the next week, taking “co-pilots” as they call them, for tandem flights. But not just any co-pilots.

For years Santacroce was winning major championships in aerobatics and cross-country, inventing new tricks and competing for Red Bull in its Red Bull Air Force. He is also one of the world’s foremost paragliding and hang gliding instructors, with his own school in Utah where he lives. Santacroce is also one of the nation’s biggest distributors of paragliding gear.

But his main passion is Project Airtime, a 501c3 non-profit he formed, with the mission to “take everyone flying!”

“This is my favorite thing,” Santacroce said. “It used to be – look at me – now it’s more like look at you.”

He started out by flying tandem with people suffering from multiple sclerosis, which lit the fire. Now, he flies with  people who have spinal chord or brain injuries, illness, the elderly or veterans, specifically wounded warriors.

“There’s only a few other organizations that do this,” Santacroce said. “But we’re on the leading edge.”

He said they’re still in the formative stages. He hopes to gain support from foundations who will embrace what he’s doing. Santacroce said he took his grandfather up at 68, before he developed ALS.

“Everybody is a survivor of something,” he said.

In fact, Santacroce suffered a spinal cord injury from a paragliding accident. He was in a wheelchair himself for a while, told he’d never get out of it. Obviously, he did.

He uses what he calls a super chair, developed in France for the disabled co-pilot. Although the co-pilot is seated, the harness is a standard paragliding harness.

Finding out about Santacroce was not the only inspiration for Reilly. He had seen the French film, “The Intouchables,” about an aristocrat who has become quadriplegic from a paragliding accident. He hires a young man from the projects to be his caregiver, and he paraglides again.

“I’m always doing something different,” Reilly said with a smile.

Reilly is also the chapter head for the Northwest Chapter of the Spinal Cord Society.

For more information on Project Airtime visit

This “super chair” was designed and built in France to accommodate special needs co-pilots so they can also experience the thrill of paragliding.

Marty Reilly, 53, has been in a wheelchair for 20-years paralyzed from the chest down. He was ready to fly! Standing from left, Natalie Carmichael, and Reilly’s sons, Chris, 19 and Andy, 22.

Marc Chirico and Marty Reilly have a little fun with Chirico’s jester helmet. Not being very aerodynamic, Reilly was given a regular helmet for his flight.


Marty Reilly with his sons, Chris, 19 on the left, and Andy, 22 on the right.

A tandem flight comes in for a landing at Seattle Paragliding off of Issaquah-Hobart Road.

Marty Reilly looks a little unsure of his upcoming flight with Chris Santacroce.

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