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Wheelchair-accessible basket lets former pilot take flight at Tigard Festival of Balloons

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 6/27/2022 Tom Hallman Jr., oregonlive.com
A floating hot air balloon at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022. © MJ Johnson/oregonlive.com/TNS A floating hot air balloon at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022.

For more than a decade Jim Smith had no reason to return to the Tigard Festival of Balloons. Once an avid hot air balloon pilot, Smith had served on the festival’s board and organized pilot briefings.

And then, 12 years ago, he was grounded by a major stroke.

Now 84, he uses a wheelchair. Speaking is difficult. Home is a Beaverton senior care center. His days of floating above the ground have been a distant memory. But a few months ago, Smith learned a balloon outfitted with a Federal Aviation Administration approved passenger basket that allows a person in a wheelchair to take flight would be at this year’s Festival of Balloons.

Reach for the Stars Hot Air Balloon Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers balloon rides to people with disabilities, launched a decorated balloon at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022. © MJ Johnson/oregonlive.com/TNS Reach for the Stars Hot Air Balloon Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers balloon rides to people with disabilities, launched a decorated balloon at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022.

In a typical balloon basket, the passenger must climb over the side to get in and then stand for the flight. The basket on this balloon has a door that accommodates a 36-inch wheelchair. A flap that can be opened serves as an open-air window of sorts to let the person in the wheelchair look at the sky.

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A hot air balloon floats over the fairgrounds at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022. © MJ Johnson/oregonlive.com/TNS A hot air balloon floats over the fairgrounds at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022.

Hot air balloons gracefully dance in the sky, moving with the wind. During this three-day festival, which began Friday in Cook Park, the balloons will be seen in the skies over Tigard, Tualatin, Sherwood, Wilsonville, Aurora and Woodburn.

The balloon with the accessible basket is tethered with ropes that are anchored to the ground. The flight is controlled. The ride lasts about three minutes and floats only about 40 feet off the ground. To a casual observer it might appear boring. But to a man who yearned to break free one more time, it is magical.

“He’s been asking me for weeks about coming to the festival,” said Michelle Michaels, the activities director at Prestige Senior Living Beaverton Hills. “He’s not been in a hot air balloon since the stroke. We wanted to make sure that he got here this morning.”

Reach for the Stars Hot Air Balloon Foundation, a nonprofit based in California’s Riverside County, takes the balloon with the accessible basket to hot air balloon festivals around the country to let people with physical challenges go for a ride.

Dave Nelson boards a tethered balloon ride at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore. on June 24, 2022 © MJ Johnson/oregonlive.com/TNS Dave Nelson boards a tethered balloon ride at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore. on June 24, 2022

Kim Lynch, the foundation’s CEO and head pilot, said the foundation began more than 20 years ago when a hot air balloon enthusiast noticed that children in wheelchairs who came to balloon festivals had no way to get in the passenger basket.

A balloon floats over the fairgrounds at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022 © MJ Johnson/oregonlive.com/TNS A balloon floats over the fairgrounds at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022

“He made it his goal to make an accessible basket,” said Lynch. “My family took over leadership of the foundation seven years ago. I’m a pilot, as is my husband and our son and daughter.”

The ride on Lynch’s balloon is free with admission to the three-day festival. A pass, purchased at the gate or online, is $12. Children under 6 are free. In addition to watching the balloons getting ready to take flight, the festival features live music, a carnival, a car show, beer and food, and crafts.

Reach for the Stars Hot Air Balloon Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers balloon rides to people with disabilities, launched a decorated balloon at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022 © MJ Johnson/oregonlive.com/TNS Reach for the Stars Hot Air Balloon Foundation, a nonprofit organization that offers balloon rides to people with disabilities, launched a decorated balloon at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022

“I’m blessed to have two healthy adult children and three beautiful granddaughters,” said Lynch. “Sometimes I get a little weepy when I get some of the passengers in the basket with me. I can tell it means so much to them.”

Dave Nelson waits for his turn in the wheelchair-accessible balloon at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore. on June 24, 2022 © MJ Johnson/oregonlive.com/TNS Dave Nelson waits for his turn in the wheelchair-accessible balloon at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore. on June 24, 2022

Her balloon rides start at 6:30 a.m. — before the air temperature gets too warm, which can make the balloon unstable — and end two hours later.

A couple from Port Orchard, Wash. – nearly 180 miles from Tigard – came to the festival with their son, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

“Chase is 12,” said Jamelah Grover. “We heard about this special balloon on social media. I knew it was something Chase has always wanted to do. I contacted Kim to talk about it. She gave us her cell and we left home about 2 a.m. to get to Tigard. When we got here, we called her, and she told us she’d make it happen for Chase.”

Jim Smith, a former hot air balloon pilot and festival volunteer, boards a balloon for a tethered ride at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022. © MJ Johnson/oregonlive.com/TNS Jim Smith, a former hot air balloon pilot and festival volunteer, boards a balloon for a tethered ride at the Festival of Balloons in Tigard, Ore., on June 24, 2022.

Brian Grover said the long drive to the festival was worth the effort.

“All I can say is that it makes me happy that my son can participate,” he said. “He’s a good son.”

The man in the front of the line Friday morning was Jim Smith. Friends and hot air balloon acquaintances who learned he was at the festival dropped by to say hello.

Asked if it was an emotional moment, Smith smiled and raised his hand.

At 6:30 a.m., Lynch, all checks made, lowered her balloon to the ground. Smith was wheeled backward into the basket. Flying with him would be Micah Weaver, a 7-year-old family friend who calls Smith “Poppa Jim.”

The door was locked.

The window flap raised.

“OK, Jim,” asked Lynch. “You ready for this?”

Smith nodded.

“Here we go,” said Lynch. “Here we go.”

The balloon lifted off.

The former pilot grounded for more than a decade peered from the basket window.

Yes, it would be just three minutes.

Smith savored every second.

He looked at the sky and the people below.

He smiled.

He waved.

Tigard Festival of Balloons

The festival continues 5:45 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 5:45 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday in Tigard’s Cook Park. Parking is at 8680 S.W. Durham Road; 3-day pass is $12; single day tickets will not be sold; tigardballoon.org. Volunteers at the festival will direct visitors to the Reach for the Stars tethered balloon rides.

— Tom Hallman Jr; thallman@oregonian.com; 503-221-8224; @thallmanjr

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit oregonlive.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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