Akron Makers are turning a kid’s wheelchair into an X-Wing fighter

by Derek Kreider

A heroic collaboration of nonprofit organizations is taking place on South Summit Street in Akron.

The Akron Makerspace, a 4,300-square-foot facility for woodworkers, metalsmiths, welders and other artisans who might otherwise not have access to studio space, and Magic Wheelchair, an organization that constructs costumes for children who use wheelchairs, have joined forces to manufacture a getup for a child named Noah Lucardie.

Each wheelchair costume by Magic Wheelchair incorporates the wheelchair as well as the child who pilots it. In Noah’s case, he’ll become the pilot of an X-Wing fighter, a spacecraft that first graced the screen in 1977 with the release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

The resulting X-Wing costume will mount directly to Noah’s wheelchair. Noah will debut the costume during Cleveland Comic Con, which runs March 8-10.

Noah’s costume will feature a launch sequence that requires him to pull a few levers and flip a couple switches to activate. The wings will operate much in the same manner as they do in the Star Wars movies, and at Noah’s enthusiastic agreement, will feature laser effects to simulate the laser cannons the ship has in the films.

The build team won’t always be available to help mount the costume at every event Noah goes to, whether it be Halloween or a comic convention, so the costume has to be designed in such a way that Noah’s parents will be able to assemble it.

Leading the charge has been a man named Warren Provencal, a member of the Akron Makerspace. For 25 years he’s been working as a fabricator and designer, and it shows in the work that he’s done. His background in practical effects and design makes him the perfect person for the job. Still, Warren often falls back on the expertise of his teammates when he comes up against a logistical problem that he’s unsure how to solve.

Mike Shanahan, another Makerspace member and the organization’s treasurer, is in charge of the electronic components. During my visits to the shop, he was in the midst of designing a sonar system for the costume that will alert Noah when he’s approaching something out of his sightline, and working on the lighting effects.

Andrew Buczko has been another helping hand with the fabrication of the costume. Andrew is handy with a tool, quick with a solution for a problem and always eager to help with whatever is going on.

There has been a rise in community involvement with the space as well. “This is one of the best turnouts that we’ve ever ended up having for one of these group builds,” Warren says. “With Magic Wheelchair, we’re getting a lot of outside community interaction.”

Despite the impact that the Magic Wheelchair build has had on the Makerspace, Warren keeps the real meaning of the project squarely in front of him. “It’s not for us, it’s for this kid,” he says.

Each designated build day or night is an all-hands-on-deck affair for whoever is able to show up. When I arrived on Feb. 13, Warren was teaching a wood shop safety class. There were a couple people studying in the lobby. Mike was working on the on-board sonar for the costume. Andrew was shaping the plastic side panels for the costume.

After an hour, the wood shop safety class wrapped up and the build night kicked into gear. They moved Noah’s wheelchair into the center of the workshop and dismantled the mock-up of the costume. It was time for a fitting.

Warren and Andrew attached the costume to the wheelchair to see where things might need adjusted. The headrest of the chair bumped up against the back of the chassis. The wheels rubbed against the bottom of the costume, compromising the chair’s turning radius.

In a matter of minutes, Andrew was drawing lines to denote where things needed to be cut. Minutes later, surgery began. A utility knife was heated with a torch so it could cut through the foam and expanded PVC that comprise the chassis. They used a round drill bit to drill out a space for the headrest. Everyone available was lending a hand.

“There’s modifications, but nothing that discourages me,” Warren said.

If there is a theme for the way things proceed during a build session, it’s that anyone who can help, will. Both times I watched the build team at work, one and all came together. Everyone bounced back and forth, working on the tail section one moment and then the cockpit the next. The key for them is teamwork. Like a well-oiled machine, they move forward to their joint goal: turning Noah into a space pilot.

During one visit, I was lucky enough to have a brief conversation with Noah and his father, Nate Lucardie. They had stopped by the shop to drop off Noah’s wheelchair so the build team could get a feel for what still needed done on the costume.

The timing of Noah’s arrival meshed perfectly with the start of the Makerspace’s weekly open house. Non-members got a unique opportunity to witness what makes the Akron Makerspace so exceptional. Here sat a group of people dedicated to injecting this child’s life with some fun and warmth by making his ideas a reality, just because they knew they could do it.

Even in the late stages of the build, Warren and Noah were still collaborating on the particulars of the costume. Suggestions included a Snickers cannon and a receptacle built into the costume for people to deposit Halloween candy in.

“He’s really excited. We appreciate the work that everyone who has contributed has put into it,” Nate said. “They’ve been really great to work with.”

Noah especially has been excited about how much candy his costume is likely to get him during Halloween. “My favorite are king size Hershey bars,” he said shortly after proposing the candy cannon. And he suggested, “In the future, maybe a costume that can fly.”

Derek Kreider is a writer, musician, and construction worker hailing from Springfield Township.