Shattered Spine, Unbreakable Spirit

Adventure athlete Grant Korgan overcomes a bad accident to become a pilot.

Grant Korgan standing in front of a plane
Refusing to accept his new reality as someone whose dreams were also shattered, Grant dug deep, determined to get back into the cockpit and earn his wings.Shawna Korgan

As human beings, we’re constantly ­evaluating our paths—our dreams, our fears and the simple truth that fulfillment always lies just beyond the veil of what we perceive our limitations to be.

Frictions in our lives define us, not at face value but rather by the path we cut through them. It is our innate and pure ability to navigate without exceeding our personal critical angles of attack and stalling into terra firma that makes us resilient. To be a pilot is to be a problem solver; to leave the ground is to be a dreamer. To soar in absolution means overcoming the pull of life’s gravity and engaging the clouds in a timeless dance of divinity.

I grew up out west near Lake Tahoe in a small mountain town, a kid with big dreams. I had a ­positivity-filled perspective on life and an ­ever-present disdain for the knowledge that my feet were planted to the ground. Perhaps it was the 1986 movie Rad that inspired my lifelong friend Duncan Lee and me to commit decades to the athletic art of leaving terra firma, if only fleetingly, by jumping bikes, snow skis, ­personal watercraft, motorcycles and eventually snowmobiles. Perhaps it was a line in our hard-wired code that compelled us to lift our eyes skyward. Either way, the stage was set for life's inevitable rotation speed.

Months after receiving my ­driver’s license, on a whim, my dad, Larry, arranged for a flight in a Bell 206 JetRanger. The experience would take us out over Desolation Wilderness, the ­mountainous range on the other side of Lake Tahoe, from our home in Incline Village, Nevada. As the turbine lit and began to spool, my heart raced in parallel to follow its energetic lead up. What happened next would crystallize in my impressionable young mind and forever change my perception of ­terrestrial confinement. We left the ground in that helicopter, and I tasted in minutes what my 16-year-old feet had explored in the totality of their relative lifetime. I stepped off that magical flying machine a different person—a kid who knew he needed to fly. Inspired by a few powerfully motivating people in my life—specifically Duncan’s dad, Rick Lee, who is an extremely accomplished global aviator, and the collective inspiration bomb that is NASA—my desire to leave the ground continued to grow.

airplane parked in front of hangar
Grant began flight training in a Beechcraft C-23 Sundowner.Shawna Korgan

Fast-forward to meeting my soul mate, Shawna Korgan. At a 2007 dinner party, we had a 30-minute conversation with our eyes that likely lasted seconds in reality—but I knew. In that moment, I had met my twin flame. Within weeks, we were on a path to spend our lives together. In one of our first heart-meshing conversations, she asked me the question, “What do you really want to do in this life?” If all my needs were met, she wanted to know, and the path was devoid of failure and blinding success was a guarantee, what would I do with my life?

Confidently, I responded, “Nanotechnology,” and I meant it. At the time, I was the co-founder and president of a startup nanotechnology firm that designed proprietary laser-science devices in the field of applied laser physics with applications in both the medical and renewable energy industries for ­foreign- and domestic-government national lab programs. And I loved it.

Sensing a deeper truth beyond my answer, Shawna pressed on: “What do you really want to do with your life, with your time?”

three men standing in front of an airplane
Aviators in the wild: Grant, Galen Gifford, and their instructor and flight ­mentor, Chris Barbera, aka “Charlie Bravo.”Shawna Korgan

I drew a big breath and was ready to redeliver my original answer, but foundational truth has a way of bubbling to the surface. Semi-embarrassed I'd pushed my lifelong aviation dreams aside, I replied, “I have long wanted to be an EMS pilot.” I went on to tell her how I wanted to help people in their highest moments of need, to assist others to move beyond impossible situations, when aviation is the only tool that can save a life.

Shawna’s eye softened, a fulfilled smile now on her face. Without hesitation she said, “Tomorrow. You begin working on your pilot’s license tomorrow.”

And I did.

Later that week, still in the ­endorphin-blissed reality that is intermeshed with taking steps to achieve a high-minded goal, I “phoned a friend.” I reached out to a local adventure buddy, career firefighter, ­aviator, airplane owner and CFI-I, Matt Peek. Matt and I go way back into the world of ­navigating ­difficult ­rivers—­literally—in the ­adventure sport of expedition ­whitewater kayaking. Our brains speak the same ­language, and together, we pushed hard in his Beechcraft C-23 Sundowner, past the requisite hours and skills qualifying me to take the private pilot practical test. The only thing that stood between my lifelong dream of becoming a fully licensed pilot was that checkride.

man looking at camera while flying an airplane
A student solo scenic flight to Burning Man in 2009—before the snowmobiling accident—over Black Rock City, Nevada.Grant Korgan

The Accident

Everything changed for me on March 5, 2010. Nearing my private pilot grand finale, I found myself riding in a CalStar EMS helicopter over the Tahoe backcountry—not far from Desolation Wilderness—inbound to a hospital with a critically injured patient on board. Though a life of EMS helicopter rescue was my dream, somehow I'd found myself in the wrong place in that EC 135. Strapped half-lifeless to a backboard, I was the critically injured patient with a cervical collar around my neck, mild hypothermia, a broken back and a severed spine—and no feeling or movement below my bellybutton. Though my eyes were wide open, I was plunged into a nightmare.

Straining my vision beyond the head restraints, I could see a man in the pilot seat. Through the chaos—­triaging flight nurses, veins being stabbed with ­needles—I was hyper aware of the pilot’s cyclic and subtle collective movements. I could see his mastery of the controls, his calm execution, his life-empowering passion. I was witness to his greatness. He was living his truth—and I was now a million miles away from mine, tears streaming down my face in silent horror.

From the back of that CalStar Eurocopter, I couldn’t see where we were going. The fracture to my soul, the result of a lifeless lower body, felt equal to a heart that was breaking as each nautical mile toward our destination passed. This could not be real. My wings were clipped; my life’s path erased. My higher self was shattered.

man standing on step of helicopter
Korgan pursuing his EMS dream with Air Methods pilot Andy Peek.Jeff Punya

I don't remember much about the nine days my family and friends spent with me in the ICU. I have a few soul-crushing memories from my time there and on the neurology floor. Mostly, I remember facing rock bottom in the in-patient rehab ­hospital. Ten days after suffering a paralyzing snowmobile injury—painfully chronicled in my first book, Two Feet Back—I awoke, lucid and fully aware. I was given a room with a view of the very helicopter landing pad I'd arrived on weeks prior. This particular room did not have a TV, but I could watch heroes working right outside my window helping others in need. With every life I saw saved, my conviction grew deeper. Without moving legs, my practical test would be canceled. Shawna picked up the phone and called Matt to tell him, "Grant's not going to take that checkride—yet."

Years went by—daydreaming, believing, never giving up, but living a reality a million miles away from my "truth" as an aviator. Drawing on a lifetime of seeing the good in things and choosing positivity over the overwhelming shouts of opposition, my recovery period began. Just inside two years of six-days-a-week, 10-hour days of physical therapy with my wife and the Spine Nevada physical ­therapy team, I would go on to attempt the impossible. With a goal to push myself to the edge of my physical capacity to heal and recover, I would attempt to become the first person with a spinal cord injury to ski the final degree of latitude to Antarctica's geographic South Pole. I would do this in an effort to raise funds and awareness for the High Fives Foundation, a nonprofit group that acts as the "safety net for adventure athletes" to pay for recovery costs beyond what insurance will cover. This Antarctic expedition went on to become the multi-award-­winning documentary film The Push, now available on Netflix.

Not long after returning home from Antarctica, fate would find me back in Rick Lee’s cockpit. Moments after landing back at KRNO, it happened. A switch had flipped—I could no ­longer wait or accept the word “no.” My commitment to moving forward was unwavering. I was on fire to see my aviation goal realized. Fully empowered by Shawna’s confident energy, my mind was made up. I would take the first step. The fuse was lit.

two men standing in front of an airplane
Grant and Galen on their paths to achieving their aviation dreams together.Shawna Korgan

The largest hurdle was learning if the FAA would approve me for a medical certificate. Years of working directly with the FAA, researching precedent with knowledgeable aviators and doctor visits with specialists ensued. After a long road of tests, paperwork and absolute belief, I finally received a letter granting me a one-time opportunity for a medical flight test with our local FSDO—to either endorse my flying dreams or kill them forever. A third-class medical ­certificate is required to fly solo, but solo flying wasn’t the goal, helping others was. To achieve my dream in full, an FAA first-class medical certificate was my goal, the same standard airline pilots must qualify for. It took three years, many letters from specialists, and an unwavering amount of support from Spine Nevada neurosurgeon James Lynch, senior aviation medical examiner Dianne Higgins and others for the FAA to grant me this testing opportunity. The date was set. My chance was real. The question was: Without any feeling or movement in my feet, how could I manipulate the brakes to stop a moving airplane?

Family, friendship and love. If you pull all the noise and compounding minutiae out of a given life circumstance, these three elements are the only things that are real. And if you’ve chosen to include luck in your life, you likely have a wingman. Galen Gifford is a powerhouse of positivity. He is a philanthropist, entrepreneur, global curator of stoke, dream-supporting savant and brother.

The sun was out, summer was upon us, and we were driving to Galen’s house in Reno, Nevada. Empowering one another to achieve milestones we are individually striving for has defined our years of friendship. For some reason, on this day and on this drive, our words led me out on life’s skinny branches. For the first time, outside of intimate conversations with Shawna, I shared my improbable dream out loud—my fears, beliefs, hopes and dreams about one day becoming a licensed pilot. I shared the details about my dream of becoming an EMS pilot and encouraging others with physical challenges to take flight.

As someone with a long-running slight fear of flying, Galen, pellucid and present with thought, paused and with a metered tone said: “I believe this achievement is within you. Not only will I encourage you to run the marathon, I will run it with you. Side by side, shoulder to shoulder, overcoming any hurdles we face, we will do this together.”

The goal was set, the vision was clear. We would cross the finish line as a team and shake hands in the achievement of our mutual goals, as two fully certified pilots.

man standing next to an airplane
Grant training hard in 2009 toward his upcoming private pilot checkride.Pam Korgan

Redemption in the Air

There are people among us who walk with invisible capes. Jim Wilkinson is one of those people. Beyond his myriad aviation, life and business achievements, Jim’s high-performance state of mind and inspired demeanor make him an exceptional force for global positivity. Proving the universe always has your back, a sky-surfing mentor was moments from entering my life. While I was working with the FAA to achieve my medical certificate, Galen began his flight training in a Cirrus SR20 owned and operated by Jim’s company, Mountain Lion Aviation. Mountain Lion is a premier charter operator between the U.S. West Coast and all the fun that happens here in Lake Tahoe. Flying a modern fleet of Cirrus SR22T aircraft along with a TBM 930 ­single-engine turboprop, the outfit aims to ­connect any airport to its home base in Truckee, California.

Galen set a meeting with Jim’s executive assistant, in hopes he could give further advice on the path forward. All of us seated at a boardroom table large enough to land a helicopter on, Galen, Shawna and I laid out the plan for the mission ahead of us. Jim wanted to help: “I’ve heard your story and understand your desire to fly. If you have the volition to innovate and earn your way down this path, we would like to support you in making that happen. If someone is not a pilot, they can’t understand how painful it is to come so close to earning that license, and then not. We are behind you. Mountain Lion will support your dream. Prepare for launch.” My mind blown, I was overcome with emotion. My gratitude exploded. Empowered and inspired by Jim’s belief, I picked up the baton and leaned hard into the journey.

two men standing next to an airplane
A proud Charlie Bravo, right after Grant passed his final checkride exam.Shawna Korgan

The day finally came. The man, the myth, the legend who Galen was training with walked through the door at the Atlantic FBO at KRNO. Chris Barbera is CEO and chief pilot of Mountain Lion, a jet-rated ­captain, and the man in the movies you want to see raise his hand if anything goes wrong in an airplane. Galen and I immediately took to Chris, who we coined “Charlie Bravo.” He was a believer, a rare talent and was with us in the mission all the way.

With Charlie Bravo leading the charge, I began my training in one of Mountain Lion’s SR20s. I put my mechanical engineering degree to use and went to work designing a novel FAA-compliant hand-brake control system that would allow me to fully operate the brakes, rudders, yoke, power settings, avionics and radio. Mark Levrett is a competitive off-road racing force in the desert world, race-truck builder and master fabrication wizard. After sitting with me in the cockpit to evaluate my needs, watching how I drive a car and noodling on my preliminary prototype ideas, he went full “mad scientist” in his shop and emerged with an engineering masterpiece. From my first flight back in the cockpit, the Cirrus slipped on like a proverbial glove. Returning to the sky was an experience of newfound rapture, applied freedom on high, a departure from struggle.

Charlie Bravo poured his heart, talent and time into training me to show up big on game day to seize these opportunities. Each step ­forward in my training brought powerfully positive emotions to my life. Milestone after milestone, my skyward journey has been a release of the past, a connection to the present and a yearning for the future. Flight after blissful flight, I finally arrived at my FAA medical checkride.

man and woman posing in airplane cockpit door
Moments after Grant's first solo flight.Shawna Korgan

It was a high-density-altitude day in July when my opportunity came. Make no mistake, this was the crucible. Fail the medical test, and the dream of leaving the ground fails with it. The examiner pulled no punches and put me through every foreseeable configuration his testing mind could conceive. In the end, I had performed my best flying to date and was granted the exact same medical status I had achieved before my injury: an FAA first-class medical certificate. Not long after my medical test, I completed my first solo and then cross-country flights, and after putting in the hours, I found myself back in the exact same place I was nine years earlier: polishing my skills and knowledge to pass an upcoming checkride, securing that first step of achievement in my aviation journey.

Who was I to dismiss the walls around me and reach for more? Who was I to demand my lifeless limbs to perform miraculously pedestrian feats of absolute normality? Who was I to live a life I was willing to create and work hard for? Better questions: Who was I not to, and who would I become if I didn’t? The road to my checkride was long and full of turbulence. There were problems to solve and new ground to break. But we did the work, dug deep, leaned on one another as a team, and stayed committed to putting one foot in front of the other down the path. It wasn’t about what could go wrong. Rather, it was about what could go right. I studied the physics of aviation like I was writing a white paper on the Bernoulli equation in the wild. I was prepared, and I trained hard knowing my opportunity would come. With time, obstacles became runways and the impossible became possible. So often, it’s the battles that threaten to beat us, where our backs are up against the wall, that we find our master strokes—our raw and unscripted greatness.

man sitting on airplane wing
Coffee cup in hand, Charlie Bravo takes the field for a big day of crosswind training.Shawna Korgan

The sun finally rose on checkride day. The work was done, I had only to ­execute. On this day, I would take my shot. I would take a test I had dreamed about since I was a child and been preparing for over the past decade. After passing the oral portion of the test, my excitement rose to meet the challenge which lay before me—the flight. Galen and Shawna were there as I pulled a ­carbon-and-aluminum modern marvel from its hangared nest. Systematically executing the many steps I had visualized and practiced in my head, I found myself on centerline releasing the brakes for a short-field takeoff to the west. After all the miles we traveled to get to this moment, the big test had finally begun.

If you can see it, you can achieve it. For many years, I laid flat through countless hours of indoor physical therapy. With pain as my guide and recovering to live a full life with the queen of my universe as my motivation, I would close my eyes and silently visualize every detail of the checkride finale. Slowly, with an air of deliberate confidence, the examiner would extend his hand across the cockpit of the aircraft and say these three simple yet awe-inspiring words: “Congratulations, you passed.” On a perfect Monday afternoon, June 10, 2019, that exact vision manifested in my life.

two men hugging
Unfiltered and full of heartfelt emotion, Grant's dad, Larry Korgan, embraces his son.Pam Korgan

Minutes after the examiner signed my paperwork, he shared a few heartfelt words, which meant the world to me. As the ink was drying on my newly minted license, he said, “This signature makes it official, but you have always been a pilot.”

With parents, friends, Galen and our all-time favorite FAA tower ­controller, Bill, all gathered around the airplane, Charlie Bravo had a dream of his own to set in motion. Like a proud dad on graduation night, he looked me in the eyes and asked if I was ready to take my first passenger for a flight. Chris asked Shawna to load into the airplane. Moments later, Bill cleared us to take the runway, and together, we stepped out into the void, crossing beyond a threshold. Within minutes, the two of us were out over Tahoe in our first moments alone in the air, blissed in flight. Holding hands, with mist in our eyes, we flew out over the lake, exchanging freedom-filled smiles and ­synchronized tears—tears of joy.

man and woman posing while flying airplane
Over Lake Tahoe with his first passenger, Grant and Shawna fly off into the sunset.Grant Korgan

My lifelong dream to become a fully licensed pilot has officially come true. It’s been a little over a month, and my feet are just now starting to touch the ground again. As ­people, we are most connectable where we are most ­vulnerable. In that vein, it is my passion to share my belief that both greatness and absolution exist beyond our challenges—if we choose to pursue them with forward ­movement. The truth is this: We all struggle, and it’s who we decide to become on the other side of struggle that defines our lives and our paths.