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Cumbrian man with MND takes to the skies one last time

Cumbrian man with MND takes to the skies one last time

Ready for the flight. Tony with his wife Julie, daughters Vikki and Sarah, and grandchildren Joshua, Luis and Islay and (right) Tony and Malcolm Grout flying. Credit Tom Mellodew

On Friday (20 October), a former teacher and paragliding pilot, confined to a hospital bed or wheelchair by motor neurone disease (MND), took the skies in a tandem paraglide one final time to raise awareness and support research into MND.

Volunteers and friends from Keswick Mountain Rescue Team helped carry 59-year-old Tony Thompson, from Keswick, up Clough Head in the Lake District, in a specially adapted tandem buggy for disabled people, to enable him to take part in the flight.

Many of Tony’s friends from Cumbria Soaring Club joined Tony for the flight, and all assisted the efforts to get Tony and the paragliding gear up the hill. In addition, as a welcome surprise for Tony on the day, pilots Rod Welford, Stuart Holmes and Gordie Oliver, took three of Tony’s grandchildren (Joshua, 10, Luis, 7, and Islay, 4) in the air, to reach the clouds alongside Tony, and make it a day to remember for all the family.

Tony took part in the tandem flight to raise awareness of motor neurone disease and support research into the condition. He has already raised nearly £3000 for the Motor Neurone Disease Association – the only national charity in England, Wales and Northern Ireland focused on MND care, research and campaigning. People can sponsor Tony by going online at: www.justgiving.com/flyTT.

Tony and malcolm in the air with grandchildren Joshua and Islay, taken from the air by Stuart Holmes flying with Luis. Credit Stuart Holmes

Tony said: “I am totally overwhelmed by the amount of support I received and everyone that helped make this happen. Even the weather gods helped out!

“It was very emotional having three grandchildren flying alongside me, waving and shouting at me. A real privilege.”

Malcolm Grout had the pressure of being Tony’s pilot for the flight. He says: “It was a privilege to be Tony’s pilot for the day. I have known Tony for a long time and taught with him and it was an honour to fly with him once again.”

Tony’s first grandchild, ten-year-old Joshua, said: “The best thing was flying so high and being in the clouds with Grandad. It was amazing! It was all white like smoke. You could see so much from up there and it was so much fun.”

Gordie Oliver, who flew Tony’s granddaughter, Islay, said: “Although Tony’s cruel condition has robbed him of his ability to move and talk, it has not taken his spirit. Keen to live life to the fullest, for some time Tony has been organising his friends and family to get him airborne one last time.

“A beautiful autumn day finally allowed for an attempt at a flight. It would be no means an easy challenge, although experienced flying disabled people, Tony’s current condition meant he would be by far the most delicate passenger ever flown tandem.

“The fresh breeze allowed for an easy launch with Tony soon soaring above his beloved Lake District and touching the clouds once more. Flying conditions were fantastic for such a late season day, with thermals common place and the sky soon filling with gliders as many of Tony’s mates joining him in the air one last time. An experience made even more special by Tony’s grandchildren being flown alongside him.

“An hour after Tony achieved his ambition, he descended through the valleys, coming in for a smooth landing in front of his family, friends and local media there to greet him, in the process, raising much needed funds for MND research.”

Tony’s daughter Sarah Mellodew, 33, who also lives in Keswick, said: “Unless you’ve had experience of MND, people won’t realise how difficult a challenge this was.

“The amount of support the family received to help make this happen was something else – from the staff at Keswick hospital that helped Tony get up in time and dressed in his paragliding gear, to all the friends from Cumbria Soaring Club and Keswick Mountain Rescue Team that got him up the hill and in the air, to the farmer that donated the usual landing fees to the MND Association. It really was a day to remember!

“I’m so proud of my dad and grateful for the support of everyone on the day to make it such a special experience for the family.”

Fellow paragliding pilot, Mike Harper, said: “It was a perfect day. Tony has done so much for our club and it was great that we could come together to share this day with Tony and his family. It shows what you can achieve with a bit of determination and the support of your friends.

“I don’t think I’ve ever walked up a hill with my flying gear so quick, let alone helping to pull a buggy! Everyone was just so keen to get Tony up the hill and ensure everything ran smoothly for him.

“The flying conditions were superb. The air was so smooth with lift everywhere – it was so relaxing.”

Tony originally planned to use an all-terrain wheelchair to get him to the summit of Skiddaw, and fly from Skiddaw, however, the Cumbrian weather this summer delayed the flight and progression of his MND meant he needed more assistance up the hill, and so flew from the summit of Clough Head – a more accessible Lake District fell, and well-known paragliding spot.

Former teacher Tony was a well-known paraglider in the Lake District, and a member of Cumbria Soaring Club, before his motor neurone disease was diagnosed last December. He is now confined to a hospital bed or wheelchair and needs assistance to move, uses a computer to help him speak and is fed through a peg directly into his stomach.

Tony has spent a lifetime helping others enjoy the outdoors – especially his daughters and grandchildren. He was a windsurfing and sailing instructor at Derwentwater Boat Club (now Derwentwater Marina), and in 1980 became the first person to windsurf from England to the Isle of Man. He has accompanied youngsters on World Challenge expeditions, including climbing Kilimanjaro, and led school ski trips. He took up paragliding in 2003 when the sport then became his main passion. Only last October half term Tony took his grandchildren skiing at an indoor snow dome. He now is unable to move a finger due to his MND.

Motor neurone disease is a fatal, rapidly progressing disease that affects the brain and spinal cord, attacking the nerves that control movement so muscles no longer work. It kills a third of people within a year and more than half within two years of diagnosis. It’s a devastating disease that affects up to 5,000 adults in the UK at any one time and kills six people every day. There is no cure.

Denise Davies, Head of Community Fundraising at the MND Association, said: “Without the amazing effort and support of people like Tony, the MND Association would simply be unable to fund MND care, research and campaigning. Together we’re making a real difference for people living with MND and everyone who cares for them.”

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