Courtesy of Pat Murphy
Monday, Oct. 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
Twenty years ago, commercial balloon pilot Pat Murphy decided to do something that had never been done before in the U.S. — build a wheelchair-accessible hot air balloon basket.
Murphy had been showcasing his balloon at city schools and camps throughout Southern California. The balloon visits opened children’s eyes to the possibilities of the world and encouraged them to challenge limitations that life places on them.
It was at the cancer camp Reach For the Sky that he realized his basket had its own limitations — children in wheelchairs couldn’t ride.
“I found out some of the children couldn’t get into the basket. ... Even if the child wasn’t a wheelchair user because they were weak with chemo or whatever was going on at the time, they just couldn’t get into the basket,” Murphy said. “So that’s when I knew I had to do something different.”
Murphy’s wheelchair-accessible Reach For the Stars balloon will be one of 16 hot air balloons on display Friday through Sunday at the third annual Hot Air Balloon Festival. The free event held at Southern Hills Hospital and hosted by Friends of Metro Search and Rescue is designed to raise money for Metro’s volunteer search force, to educate the community on health and safety issues, and for families to have fun.
This year’s event includes a carnival, fried food, Metro Police K-9 demonstrations, balloon rides and a balloon glow at night, but Murphy’s balloon is the biggest addition, event coordinator Joyce Goedeke said. It opens up the wonderment of balloon rides to children with special needs.
“That’s what piqued our interest when we heard about (Murphy),” Southern Hills CEO Kimball Anderson said. “That (he) would be able to come out and provide that experience for kids who would never have a chance any other way to do that. We’re excited here at Southern Hills.”
The difference between Murphy’s Reach For the Stars basket and a typical balloon appears simple at first glance: His has a removable door with a ramp and clamps to lock the wheelchair in place. Yet the process to reach that point took seven years.
When Murphy decided to build the balloon in 1993, no manufacturers would even consider selling a wheelchair-accessible basket out of fear of liability issues. Nothing like that had existed before. As it was, the standard balloon baskets required a person to sign a liability waiver.
Still, Murphy was determined. He wanted children with special needs to experience the feeling of weightlessness, to feel the heat from the jet of flames lifting the balloon into the air, to watch life shrink away below them as they drift toward the clouds.
It’s a magical experience that challenges reality. After all, hot air is lifting a balloon the size of a 2,000-square-foot home and weighing 4 tons into the sky.
“When you go out there and the kids see that big colorful balloon, they go nuts. They love it,” Murphy said. “When you think of children with special needs especially, the limitations already placed on them in their lives, 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 I’m doing it?”
Eventually, Murphy fronted his own money, found designers to help him and used his engineering background to make sure the basket would pass tests. He worked around the liability issues by requesting that all users provide their own harness or safety belt to keep them in their chair in addition to his clamps.
In 2000, his basket was cleared for flights. As a way of giving back, Murphy decided to offer balloon rides as a nonprofit. Since he started the nonprofit in 2000, it has grown to three different types of balloons, including “Robbie,” a 13-story-tall balloon in the shape of a child in a wheelchair.
His balloon will provide free tethered rides to special-needs children at the Las Vegas festival. Anderson said it is a perfect fit for the event, which is all about connecting with the community.
“We’re looking for ways to connect with our community and felt like that would be a natural fit for us,” Anderson said. “It would be an added attraction to attract people to the balloon festival and be a benefit to the Las Vegas Metro Search and Rescue auxiliary as well.”
For Murphy, he plans to continue to spread his message to kids that they can overcome any limitations.