Mobile Disabled Explorers
By Gary Wescott, Photography Gary Wescott
It’s Saturday morning. You toss a few supplies in the back of your 4×4 and head toward one of your favorite two-tracks. Maybe it’s just for a day of
Four Wheeler magazine, October 2010
fishing or maybe for a week of relaxation in the great outdoors. Most of us take the pleasure of four-wheeling, exploring backroads, and enjoying the solitude beyond the pavement and pubic campgrounds for granted. For Lance Blair, that seemed to end one night in December of 1988, when a drunk driver ran a red light.
At the young age of 18, Lance lost his leg. His first thought, “My life in the outdoors is over.” But Lance chose a different path. After 20-some years of working with the disabled as an ICU nurse, he founded Disabled Explorers. The all-volunteer, non-profit organization’s purpose is to expand the horizons and possibilities of the physically challenged, many now coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Following a 24-day/5,000-mile expedition along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico, he realized that while his Toyota FJ Cruiser worked for him, he needed a larger vehicle to accommodate even those restricted to a wheelchair. The obvious choice was a four-wheel drive van, and no one knows more about outfitting such a vehicle than Sportsmobile West in California. The company has been building van campers for over 50 years. The W.A.V.E. (Wheelchair Accessible Van for Expeditions) soon became a major project.
In 2003, Sportsmobile West designed their own four-wheel drive conversion, correcting shortcomings of other conversions in the process. Most of the drive train, except for the engine and transmission, was removed from the W.A.V.E.
Using Total Vision camera on the rear bumper and rear axle give a disabled driver spotting capabiilty without leaving the vehicle.
A wheelchair lift was fitted inside the side cargo doors. Pete Nehem gave us a demonstration.
The Dynatrac ProRock 60 features a high-knuckle front design to maximize clearance.
At the rear, the Dana 60 semi-floating axle was retained. Up front, a Dynatrac ProRock 60 axle was installed with DynaLoc hubs. If a DynaLoc hub fails, it reverts to the locked position, which makes it less likely to leave a disabled person stranded. The ProRock also features a high-knuckle front design to maximize clearance. Turning radius has been reduced to 39′, 2″ inches. That’s nearly three feet tighter than a stock two-wheel drive Ford van. The front axle is equipped with an ARB locking differential. The rear uses a Ford limited-slip. The standard axle gear ratio is 4.10:1.
Custom ARB Dakar sprints were installed. A reverse shackle design was used in the front for a better ride, and all spring packs have a partial military wrap designed specifically for the Sportsmobile. ARB OME shocks round out the suspension.
All steering linkage was mounted as high as possible. By keeping the drag link virtually horizontal, bumpsteer is practically eliminated. Front and rear custom Hellwig heat-treated 1.38-inch sway bars were chosen for a smoother, more stable ride on the highway. A quick disconnect feature increases the W.A.V.E.’s wheel travel to 22 inches for serious off-highway conditions.
Behind the TorqShift five-speed, a shorter output shaft feeds power to an Advance Adapters Atlas II gear-driven transfer case with a 3:0 gear ratio. In an emergency, the Atlas allows power to be switched to front-wheel-drive-only without crawling under the vehicle. The drive train was beefed up with Spicer 1350 1-ton components on the front and Spicer 1410 Series on the rear.
The overall length of the long wheelbase Ford F-350 with the Power Stroke diesel engine is 140 inches. Departure angle is 32 degrees, and approach angle is an outstanding 44 degrees. By installing the Sportsmobile Track Right wheel spacers on the rear hubs, the front and rear wheels track identically at 70.5″.
Looking at the W.A.V.E. up on the rack, well-designed skidplates and reinforced frame sections where most stress would be transferred showed impressive attention to detail. An Extreme Outback Magnum onboard air system with a two-gallon tank is tucked up out of the way. It can be used for air tools, the ARB X-Jack, and of course, airing up tires. A Transfer Flow 46-gallon auxiliary tank gives the W.A.V.E. extended range without the heavy fuel cans. A Deca AGM Series deep-cycle 210-amp battery powers everything in the camper. An Amsoil dual-bypass oil filter system was mounted on the framerail, out of harm’s way. Amsoil synthetic fluids are used throughout.
A Sure Grip combination hand-operated brake and throttle gives the driver full control of the vehicle’s speed.
Back on the ground, Nitto Trail Grappler 295/70R17 tires were mounted on steel wheels. The Trail Grapplers were chosen for their 3,195-pound (E weight) rating and the extra-large sidewall protection lugs. Aluminess aluminum bumpers, side ladder and roof rack save considerable weight without compromising strength, and the bumpers provide wheelchair-level storage compartments. A Ramsey Patriot 9,500-pound winch was chosen for its key-chain remote semi-automatic locking clutch, reducing effort and trips back to the vehicle by a disabled person. Viking synthetic winch line reduces weight and handling issues.
Check the clearance of that big rock or see what’s parked behind you. Four cameras give the driver total vision access.
Three 10″ Rigid LED light bars above the cab provide plenty of auxiliary illumination, along with a 6″ bar on each side of the rack and one at the rear. Hella fog lights are recessed into the Aluminess bumper.
Sportsmobile interior living options are nearly endless, but it was a challenge to make the W.A.V.E. “wheelchair-friendly.” Lance opted for the solid fixed rooftop for better continuous headroom, and extra large windows. The van can still sleep four, using the upper and lower beds. A National Luna refrigerator with a top opening makes for easy access, and a battery monitor/shutoff protects the Deka AGM Series house battery. A 130-watt Kyocera solar panel on the roof with a Blue Sky control/monitor helps to recharge batteries in camp, courtesy of Mother Nature. A 2,000-watt inverter provides 110 AC power and can be used for any special medical equipment. A small sink and counter are adequate for meals on the road, and a portable Brunton stove can be used inside or outside. A Fantastic Vent, with remote control and automatic temperature and rain sensor provides good ventilation. A Fiamma 45 awning extends out over the cargo doors which incorporate wheelchair-height foldout tables and a swing-out kitchen box with storage compartments.
The standard 16-gallon water tank is enough for several days, and a Fat Plate water heater converts heat from the engine coolant. Many disabled people are temperature-sensitive, so an Espar diesel heater can take the chill out of the air in minutes. a portable toilet uses biodegradable Wag Bags.
With these basic conveniences in place, the real work began. A wheelchair lift was fitted inside the side cargo doors. Once inside, a disabled person secures tech chair’s wheels with Q’Straint self-tightening straps and slides into the B&D Independence driver’s powered transfer seat. Motors pivot the seat around and adjust it to fit the occupant’s needs. Both lift and transfer seat run on 12-volt DC. A Sure Grip combination hand-operated brake and throttle give the driver full control of the vehicle’s speed.
On the road or trail, the driver has GPS mapping on a pedestal-mounted laptop computer screen. Using the same screen, Total Vision cameras on the front and rear bumpers and front and rear axles allow the driver to “spot” without leaving his seat. The computer also holds a PDF of a full-vehicle service manual.
Backcountry communication is important. A cellular booster with roof antenna, a 2m/70cm Ham radio, and a CB radio will bring help in an emergency. A Spot Satellite Messenger can also be used for tracking and calling for assistance.
The Atlas allows the driver to shift into front drive in an emergency without crawling under the vehicle.
Motors on the B&D Independence driver’s powered transfer seat pivot and raise, adjusting to the occupant’s needs.
Standard recovery supplies and tools include Off Road Trail Tools wheel chocks and wrench/tool rolls. A Pull Pal 14,000-pound land anchor is mounted up front. Pillow Tracks air bladder sand mats and ramps can be used for lifting a heavy tire onto the hub, among other things. An Extreme Outback Tire repair kit was the most complete, user-friendly kit Lance could find, and the ARB X-Jack provides a disabled person with a safe way to lift a vehicle.
A Master Pull Super-Yanker will get the W.A.V.E. out of the muck if there is a second vehicle around. An Expedition Level First Aid Pack was supplied by Adventure Medical Kits. Lance hopes he never needs it.
Spending a morning with Lance on some backroads in the Southern Arizona desert, we were totally impressed at the ease with which he was able to maneuver the W.A.V.E. over some pretty nasty terrain, especially considering that this was a 12,000-pound vehicle you can live in. Working with Disabled Explorers and incorporating the ongoing development of the W.A.V.E. concept, we reflected on a statement Lance had made during an interview with Sagen Media on YouTube, “The only limitations are those in your head. Everything else is just a technical problem.”
Kind of goes hand in hand with something Henry Ford once said, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re probably right.” Disabled Explorers is ready to assist anyone who has a physical mobility challenge.
Pete Nehem shows his off-roading skills with his new all-terrain tracked wheellchair, proving that “The only limitations are those in your head. Everything else is just a technical problem.”