Tony Christiansen in a Cessna 172

Tony Christiansen in a Cessna 172

A LITTLE technology and a lot of tenacity have helped a Tauranga man fly solo, 28 years after his legs were severed by a train.

Tony Christiansen, 39, has entered the record books by becoming the first disabled New Zealander to fly solo.

He is a successful businessman, sportsman, motivational speaker and something of a wheelchair philosopher. He has represented New Zealand six times at world disabled games, hold a Tae Kwon Do black belt and is a qualified lifeguard and scuba diver. 

Next on his list is a private pilot's license which he hopes to have in about six months. 

Earlier this week, he took a Cessna 172 up from Tauranga Airport for his first solo flight. 

The self-described "petrol head" has also jet skiied and waterskiied, sky-dived and raced karts, speedway cars, off-roaders and circuit saloons. 

"The reason I enjoy speedway so much is when you get in the car and put your helmet on, you've just like everyone else. This ability-disability thing doesn't become an issue." 

A Civil Aviation Authority spokeswoman said it was the first time a pilot had learned from scratch, using hand controls. 

She said it was not difficult to modify aircraft controls and the CAA supported the idea. 

Ironically, Mr Christiansen taught his instructor to fly - model aeroplanes, that is. 

The pair met through the radio controlled airplane club, where Bay of Plenty Flight Centre chief flying instructor, Phil Hooker picked up a few tips from his future student. 

"I was learning to fly model airplanes and kept crashing them. Tony helped me rebuild a few," Mr Hooker said. 

When Mr Christiansen said he wanted to fly the real thing, Mr Hooker investigated and found a device used by disabled pilots in the United States. 

Paraplegic pilots used the portable hand controls, rather than their legs, to move the rudders and apply the brakes. 

"Access in and out of the airplane is a little bit more difficult but once you're strapped in a plane...the learning is exactly the same." 

Mr Hooker said he was the only instructor in New Zealand qualified to teach disabled students from scratch. He would also look at a device that allowed one-armed pilots to take flight. 

New Zealand's two other disabled pilots learned to fly before they were injured in accidents, whereas Mr Christiansen lost his legs at age nine, when a train backed over him at Te Maunga junction. 

"Challenges have been a major part of my life since then," Mr Christiansen said. 

"Your goals have to be smart. There is no point in me saying I want to be an All Black because it won't happen. But there are many goals that are reachable." 

Among the hopes and schemes that keep him awake at night is a plan to enter the 2002 winter Olympics and a dream to race sprint cars in Australia. 

The Commercial Signs production manager thrives on doing the things people say he can't. 

He entered the signwriting game after prospective employers refused to take him on as an apprentice, saying he could not climb ladders and scaffolding. So he bought his own small business, and when he sold Commercial Signs before Christmas, it has become the biggest signwriting business in the Bay of Plenty. 

And not only can he scale scaffolding, he has climbed Mauao three times, unaided. 

Despite the knockbacks and the ignorance he deals with - waiters still occasionally assume he is incapable of ordering and asking his wife what he would like - he maintains a robust sense of humour. 

"I don't have to buy shoes. You don't get sore ankles," he said. 

"One of my mates just broke his hamstring, so I'm laughing." 

"Sometimes I've said 'why me?', but the answer always comes back - why not me? I'm not a deeply religious person but I suppose there's a reason things happen."