Winning wheels

By Lynn Stanley

Fabricator breaks barriers with custom wheelchairs

October 2012 - When it comes to scrap metal, old parts or broken-down equipment, fabricator Lance Greathouse never knows what might catch his eye or spark his imagination. A custom builder of extreme wheelchairs and mobile devices, Greathouse often develops prototypes around a unique component he finds at a military salvage or junkyard. The power chairs look as though they could have rolled off the set of “Mad Max” or “Star Wars,” but Greathouse says he designs them to help break down barriers for individuals with mobility issues. 

By day, the Glendale, Ariz. resident is a laser field service engineer for Biolase, Irvine, Calif. The company develops and manufactures laser systems for the dental industry. Greathouse earned a bachelor’s degree from Arizona Technical Institute with an emphasis in electronics, computers and biomedicine but says his education really began as a kid in his father’s garage.

Severe asthma sidelined Greathouse from participating in sports so he spent most of his time with his dad, Jim Greathouse, learning to fabricate custom cars from the ground up. “The garage really became the family room for me and my younger brother Brent,” says Lance Greathouse. “In addition to metal fabrication, we gained electrical skills, learned to weld, paint, upholster and work with fiberglass. We also learned the art of improvising.”


Changing directions
When Brent Greathouse was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1999, the event reshaped Lance Greathouse’s approach to metalworking. “I watched my brother lose his mobility and I saw how people tended to treat Brent once he was wheelchair-dependent,” he says. “I wanted to try and change that by building him a wheelchair that was functional, yet really cool. With the new chair I noticed right away how it changed the way people looked at my brother. Their reactions went from pity to awe.”

Following Brent Greathouse’s death in 2004, Lance Greathouse continued to combine his experience in machine design with his fabrication skills to build tricked-out wheelchairs that could help people with disabilities reconnect with their lives and physical activities. “After watching my brother battle Parkinson’s, I decided to focus on helping people,” he says. “Just because you’re disabled doesn’t mean you can’t have fun or pursue your dreams.”

Lance Greathouse has served as a behind-the-scenes technical consultant for the TV show “Junkyard Wars” and has exhibited his prototypes at arts and culture fairs. He says when customers come to him with challenging applications it’s a little bit like finding the right pieces to a puzzle.

Innovative designs
“I received an email from Bill Frisch in Brookings, Ore., who said his fishing buddy Jeff Burke needed a scooter,” Greathouse says. “Jeff worked for a sawmill that was shut down. To reinvent his career he went to maritime school to learn to captain a cargo ship. One week into his new job he had a stroke, which left one side of his body paralyzed. He had no insurance.”

After revamping an unused four-wheel scooter he had in his stockpile at his 40 ft. by 50 ft. workshop, Greathouse spotted a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy seat and got an idea for a mobile fishing chair. He modified the aircraft chair to operate on a swivel and equipped it with a holder that could accommodate a fishing pole. The chair was then fastened to the boat with special clips. Greathouse donated the scooter and the fishing chair. “An organization called Your Secret Donor, based in LaCanada, Calif., found out about the project and donated a truck to ship the items to Oregon,” he says. “The organization also provided airline tickets that allowed my wife and me to meet Jeff in person. His wife now jokes that she hasn’t seen him since he got the fishing chair and scooter.”

For most of his projects Greathouse uses simple hand tools, a MIG welder and a plasma cutter. “My dad taught me you don’t have to buy anything, just look around you, see what you have to work with and make it yourself,” he says. “I’ll get an idea, look around my scrap pile and see what I have to work with. Usually one piece catches my eye and I’ll try to work around it by first creating a basic frame out of round or square tubing with a homemade hydraulic bender. Once I have a frame, I’ll cover it with aluminum or mild steel, though I sometimes also use foam and fiberglass.”

When the inventor spotted a Marine rescue helicopter seat in a junkyard, he thought, “I have to make something out of that.” The seat was integrated with a 36-volt electric golf cart outfitted with all-terrain Razor tires. A built-in compressor powers air brakes. The chair can reach 24 mph and has a zero turning radius. It also sports a flamethrower. Greathouse says the prototype was made for a disabled person who is looking for something a little different. “The chair doesn’t look like a medical device,” he says. “I also like to incorporate a lot of pneumatics and electronics into my creations. I guess I watched a little too much ‘Lost in Space’, ‘Johnny Quest’ and ‘Star Trek’ as a kid.”

Going off-road
Greathouse says the chair took him about three weeks to build, working nights and weekends. He also refurbishes used wheelchairs that he donates to the Shining Star Program, which provides mobility chairs and scooters to veterans in northern Arizona. “I try to do one a month,” he says, “for people who need them and can’t afford them. I can’t modify them right now because of insurance issues.”

His latest prototype is a six-wheel all-terrain wheelchair. “Everyone is looking to get outdoors, move over rock and sand and participate in activities like fishing the way they used to,” he says. Greathouse is building the chair to drive like a conventional wheelchair and retain a comparable footprint yet have the capability to take its rider up mountains or over sand. Independent suspension on each side of the chair allows it to navigate a variety of terrain. “The prototypes give people visual examples of what I can do,” he says. “My dream is to help people pursue their passions. It’s a goal that honors my brother’s memory and my own belief in family.”

When it comes to his love of metalworking Greathouse says people always ask him about his favorite project. “My favorite project is my next one,” he says. “I love the fabrication process—taking my ideas and bringing them to life.” FFJ



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