The stars were still out when I awoke. I was still half asleep as I got my things together in a zombie like fashion and then headed to the Southcoast Winery in Temecula to meet Pat, Carol and the rest of the crew from Reach for the Stars Hot Air Balloon Foundation.
The sun was starting to peak out from the hills melting its golden rays into the dark blanket of night as we greeted each other. After calculating the wind conditions with a helium balloon, we set off in carpool style to the location where the hot air balloon would take flight. It was already eighty degrees but with the sun still rising, the air felt like velvet and smelled like oranges from the surrounding orchards. My heart rate began to rapidly increase with excitement and I no longer felt tired.
At the selected liftoff spot, the crew quickly began assembling the hot air balloon. The wheelchair accessible balloon was Pat’s design. He had a vision and after years of planning and getting everything approved by the FAA it became a reality. At first glance, the hot air balloon basket appears to be average but a closer look reveals special characteristics. For one, the height is significantly lower than a regular basket, making it ideal for a wheelchair user. Furthermore, one wall of the basket can be completely removed for loading and unloading, which is approximately forty-three inches wide.
Inside a wheelchair is secured to the floor by a four-point locking system similarly seen in wheelchair accessible taxis. This removable basket wall also has a section cutout for even more optimal viewing though I felt the height of the basket alone gave me all the visibility I desired. Any hot air balloon is sensitive to the weight it carries and for the safety of all, a powered wheelchair is not permitted on board, so access to a manual wheelchair is required for any wheelchair user looking to take flight.
By the time we were up in the air the sun’s light was dominating the sky and the temperature was noticeably climbing. It didn’t matter though. Even if I was hot there were too many other senses fighting for my attention. The constant roar of the burners kept conversation to a minimum and allowed everyone to soak in the majestic feel of flight. Several other balloons were also up in the air reflecting on our own experience.
The smells of the earth were carried up by a light breeze and aroused my nostrils. Below I watched orchards, vineyards, and horses float by as tiny figurines surrounded by a perimeter of mountains. I felt like I was on Disney’s Peter Pan ride but in a much grander sense. We explored the ether for a little over an hour before descending back to the solid ground we came from. For any free-flying hot air balloon ride, one never lands where you originally take off from. As we got closer and closer to the ground the crew was there to receive us and with an expected thud our flight concluded.
About Reach for the Stars
Afterward, I joined everyone for breakfast. Carol and Pat of Reach for the Stars know they are blessed. They have experienced their fair share of challenges but thru the tremendous love in their hearts have remained glowing stars. Their joy for life pours out of them like fine wine. Since Reach for the Stars is a non-profit, Pat and Carol raise money how they can to buy fuel to give free rides to disabled and chronically ill children and adults. An array of disabled and chronically ill adults and children have been able to go for a hot air balloon ride with Reach for the Stars, however, conditions are not safe for every person so all are individually evaluated.
A ride can either consist of free-flying, which is what I did, or the tethered experience. Tethered balloon rides are set up at festivals and special needs camps, in which the balloon raises between seventy-five and one hundred feet in the air for approximately two hours and can accommodate roughly one hundred people. Tethering the balloon saves fuel allowing more people to enjoy the experience. It usually occurs when the sun rises or sets because these are the calmest times of the day but certainly some areas will vary. On the other hand, a free-flying ride is offered only in Temecula at sunrise during the late summer or fall, in which a wheelchair user is required to provide his or her seatbelt.
Pat and Carol mainly focus on hot air balloon rides at children’s special needs camps all across the United States but also attend a few festivals throughout the year, which are all listed on the website. For such special needs camps, they require that their travel expenses be paid for.