balloons2Since childhood, hot air balloons have conjured up images of Oz — representing the only feasible way of getting to a place I longed to go. Even if I did live in Kansas, I doubt a twister could carry me over the rainbow, but a hot air balloon held promise. That is how the wizard got there, isn’t it?

Unfortunately for people with disabilities like me, an incomplete quadriplegic of 32 years, traversing the skies in one of the world’s oldest ways to fly is still almost as difficult as getting safely from Munchkinland to Oz. While researching the possibilities I grew all too familiar with the mantra from most balloon companies: “Our flight is not recommended for individuals with certain health and mobility problems. Passengers must stand during the entire flight and need some agility to get in and out of the balloon basket. The baskets are not designed by the manufacturer to accommodate wheelchairs or other similar aid devices.”

Andrea Rivera living her dream of flying.

Andrea Rivera living her dream of flying.

I found one company that offered customized bean-bag style seating for those who cannot stand, while another featured a bench seat that can be put into any of their baskets. However, like most companies, their baskets do not have any doors. The crew can help pre-board people with disabilities, but pre-boarding requires the individual to lie on the ground and roll into a tipped basket, then onto the bench seat equipped with special straps that can help the rider sit upright.

For some adventurers being lifted up-and-over the balloon basket into a custom beanbag chair or rolling on the ground to gain access would not be feasible. For me it seemed doable, but I was still unsure if I wanted to test my fortitude just to fly. Part of me wanted to just click my wheels together three times and find myself sailing over the rainbow. I knew that if I was going to glide across the great blue with ease, I needed to find someone great and powerful. Luckily I did.

The Wizard of Balloons
San Diego, Calif., resident Pat Murphy never realized the impact a balloon ride more than 20 years ago would have on his life. “After reading about the original bungee-jumping brothers, the Kockelmans, diving from a hot air balloon, some work buddies and I decided to head north to Bungee Adventures in Sacramento and try it,” he says. After a successful jump, the group sat around a fire reliving the deed and quickly decided they should do this in San Diego. “It was odd,” recalls Murphy. “Bungee jumping was exciting, but ballooning is what got me hooked. I felt so free — hovering amongst the clouds. I felt like I could do anything. It was amazing!”

After lots of calling around, Ellen Stohl found Magical Adventure Balloon Rides, which does everything it can to help wheelchair users take to the sky.

Ellen Stohl checks out Reach for the Star’s balloon basket. Photo by Damion Santiago/Santiago Studios.

Murphy came home and immediately hooked up with A Beautiful Morning Balloon Company in Del Mar, Calif., which is no longer in business. He learned the skills he needed to become a balloon pilot, put in the flight time and got his commercial license by 1992. During that time, he continued to work as a hardware engineer for Hewlett Packard. As an active partner in HP’s community outreach efforts, he would volunteer setting up computers and printers at Camp Reach for the Sky, a weeklong summer program for kids with cancer. One summer he realized there was enough room for him to bring his balloon to the camp. The next year, he offered campers tethered rides in the morning and before sunset each day. He says, smiling, “The balloon was a huge success and the kids loved it.”

Murphy’s smile quickly fades when he starts to discuss how he felt when kids who use wheelchairs had no way to enjoy the ride. “It was difficult to see kids sit on the sidelines because my balloon basket couldn’t accommodate them. I felt like it was my fault. Even if the child wasn’t a wheelchair user but was too weak because of chemo, or whatever was going on at the time, they just couldn’t get into the basket. That’s when I knew I had to do something different.”

As luck would have it, Murphy discovered the solution at the 1993 Temecula Valley Balloon and Wine Festival in the form of the Serena’s Song balloon team. Serena’s Song was the first wheelchair accessible balloon created in the United States. It was designed and built by Gary Waldman for his daughter, Serena, who has cerebral palsy and other serious health issues. Waldman was inspired to create the accessible basket after he took his non-verbal, seemingly emotionless daughter, then 2, for a balloon flight. “I had never seen Serena so excited and beaming,” Waldman said. “Her squeals of delight were amazing.”

Unlike these baskets used by Magical Adventure Balloon Rides, most hot air balloon baskets do not have gates and passengers are expected to clamber over the sides with little or no assistance.

Unlike these baskets used by Magical Adventure Balloon Rides, most hot air balloon baskets do not have gates and passengers are expected to clamber over the sides with little or no assistance.

Inspired by what Waldman had accomplished, Murphy set out to adapt his own balloon basket. His background as an engineer and his access to the HP product test lab helped him work out the design flaws and test his adaptations. But the FAA is strict, and meeting its standards was expensive and time-consuming. It took seven years, but with the help of his wife, Carol, his son, Riley, and other supportive members of the ballooning community, he was able to get the basket approved and ready for flight. “It was a huge undertaking and there was no way I could do it myself. I may have been the catalyst, but without the support of others, my dream would have been grounded,” he says.

With the adapted basket complete, Murphy’s dream took flight. He secured the insurance he needed, filed the paperwork and eventually founded Reach for the Stars, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the ballooning experience to campers with disabilities and others with limitations or mobility issues. Pat reflects on his motivation: “When you think of children with disabilities especially, and the limitations already placed on them in their lives, for them to be able to do something they never thought they’d be able to do … what’s better than I can do it, should do it, and am doing it?”

A New Era
Today, RFTS ballooning continues to sail, providing rides to people of all abilities in addition to visiting schools, camps, and festivals. In December 2014, Murphy, now in his early 60s, had to pass the torch to Kim and David Lynch due to the heavy workload at his job. He tears up a bit as he shares his decision to hand over the pilot position. “It’s really hard not to be as hands-on as I was, but I’m the only pilot in my family. The Lynches are a family of four and they all have a license to fly hot air balloons. They can reach out to so many more camps, kids and people with disabilities than I ever could.”

Kim and her family are thrilled to be next in command. “I think ballooning helps people, especially those who’ve experienced difficulties realize they can do more; that they aren’t tied to the ground. Ballooning helps them let it go, release and experience a new freedom from some restraints they may feel.”

RFTS has two accessible balloon baskets and a variety of balloons, including a traditional shape with the custom RFTS balloon that displays a standing child reaching for the stars on one side and a child in a wheelchair reaching for the stars on the other. This balloon has given over 15,000 children and adults tethered rides or flights. Robbie, their special-shaped balloon, is a 3-D model of a child seated in a wheelchair, grabbing a star in his outreached hand. Joy fills the child’s face and the initials “R4TS” are emblazoned on the side of his wheelchair to encourage each of us to always reach for the stars regardless of our life situation. This balloon is available for flights but is often only flown at festivals or used in displays due to the cost of operating it.

Reach for the Stars’ specially-designed balloon of a kid using a wheelchair has become an iconic feature at local balloon festivals.

Reach for the Stars’ specially-designed balloon of a kid using a wheelchair has become an iconic feature at local balloon festivals. Photo by Dorothy E. Harris.

Unfortunately, cost is always an issue. Operating a hot air balloon is not cheap. RFTS would love to provide its services for free, but to do so it would need a benefactor to cover propane, repairs, transportation, food and the myriad of other expenses it takes to get a balloon in the air. The company’s primary goal is to garner enough donations to visit every camp for kids with disabilities in the western U.S. and attend as many festivals as possible to raise awareness and, literally, lift spirits.

I watch Joseph Chan’s face light up as the RFTS signature balloon begins to fill and take shape. The bright colors come to life as the morning sun begins to appear. We are at a Joni and Friends family retreat, and Joseph has already signed up for a tethered flight. “It’s so fun to go up there,” Joseph beams. “The view is beautiful and my family gets to come, too.” Joseph has Down syndrome and is a nine-year veteran of the week-long camp. He was scared to fly his first year, but now looks forward to the flight. He happily shares his enthusiasm. “I love the balloon, and I love the camp! That’s why I keep coming back.”

Dawni Hill, another attendee, uses a wheelchair for mobility and has no problem getting the chair inside the balloon’s custom basket. Up and away she goes. When she lands, her face dons a huge grin, “It was so much fun hovering above the earth.”

Next, Dee and George Heath share a ride with their granddaughter. Dee has cerebral palsy and uses a motorized chair. RFTS has the smaller basket today, so with the help of George, Dee transfers from her chair to a seat in the basket. In a few moments the burner roars and the balloon ascends. Dee peeks out of the custom window and waves to those of us below. George is impressed by the basket’s unique design. “It’s incredible. The engineering is marvelous,” he says. “Dee was comfortable and could see everything, even sitting down.” Both agree they’d love to try an un-tethered flight someday.

Over the years, Reach for the Stars has provided 15,000 rides to people with disabilities.

Over the years, Reach for the Stars has provided 15,000 rides to people with disabilities.

It’s another dawn and it’s been a long journey. Ballooning is a fair-weather adventure and this is my third attempt. A nasty thunderstorm canceled the first flight and unsafe landing conditions put the kibosh on my second. I protested that time, adamantly letting Kim know I could handle a rough landing, but she is cautious and quotes an old ballooning adage: “I’d rather be on the ground wishing I were up there instead of being up there wishing I were on the ground.”

Today conditions cooperate, and I actually float, not fly. I sit in the basket perched above the earth feeling as if I am motionless while the earth revolves slowly below me in a tapestry woven from vineyards, orchards and farms. It is magnificent and definitely worth the wait. I am sailing across the sky, liberated from earthbound restraints. I am overcome with a sense of freedom that can only be experienced by defying gravity.

• Blastvalve; This is the ballooning search engine’s directory of accessible balloon flights.
• Eyes to the Skies Festival/Serena’s Song;
• Magical Adventure Balloon Rides, 866/365-6987; (See below)
• Reach for the Stars, 951/538-7368; Details on balloons and camps, calendar of events and much more.
• Sky’s the Limit Ballooning Adventures, 760/602-0295; Accessibility is determined on an individual basis. Contact Renee Lawson personally:
• Sunrise Balloons, 800/548-9912; Customized bean-bag style seating for those who cannot stand.

All-Weather Ballooning

After not being able to take flight on my second attempt with Reach for the Stars, I was very frustrated. Kim Lynch openly admitted that nondisabled passengers could go up in those conditions, but because I use a wheelchair, she felt the landing would be too rough. I appreciate Kim’s cautiousness, but feel like she underestimated my abilities. My disgruntlement led to research where I discovered Magical Adventure Balloon Rides

[see resources]. This company appears to be able to accommodate all abilities and will most likely treat you like any other paying guest. If the weather permits the flight, you’ll go up along with the rest of the passengers, regardless of your disability. Denni Barrett, owner/operator had this to say, “Our company, Magical Adventure Balloon Rides, also provides for disabled passengers, not just guests in wheelchairs. We have the largest and newest fleet of balloons in Southern California. Our baskets have doors in them to allow passengers to roll in, walk on and walk off the experience. These amenities are incidental to our business.”