Special Sequim hot air balloon gets those in wheelchairs off the ground
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Chris McDaniel/Peninsula Daily News
Captain Crystal Stout, executive director of the Dream Catcher Balloon Program, and Larry Jeffryes of Sequim lift off Wednesday morning from Sequim Airport in a new hot air balloon specially designed to allow use by people who use wheelchairs.

By Chris McDaniel
Peninsula Daily News

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SEQUIM — Giving wings to those who are disabled is the goal of a unique hot air balloon being put through its paces this week at Sequim Valley Airport.

The $25,000, 45,000-cubic-foot balloon was commissioned by the nonprofit organization Chrysalis — named for the transformation a caterpillar undergoes when turning into a butterfly — as the centerpiece of the Dream Catcher Balloon Program.

Using a special seat, the balloon will allow disabled people to float in a hot air balloon tethered 25 feet above the ground — and allow family, friends and caregivers to share in the moment.

And the rides are free.

The hot air balloon, which has yet to be named, incorporates two large butterflies on either side of its envelope, the term balloonists use to describe the balloon portion of the aircraft.

'Be a butterfly'

“Those butterflies signify the freedom of flight,” said Dennis Casey, Dream Catcher Balloon Program crew member and co-designer of the modified hot air balloon.

“For someone in a wheelchair, it is like being stuck in a cocoon, and now they get to be a butterfly.”

The flights give disabled people a chance to “feel the amazement of leaving the wheelchair” and getting “their feet off the ground,” said Captain Crystal Stout, Chrysalis executive director.

“That is the big thing because it is very difficult for them to get up in the air.”

It is important to offer “the gift of wings to people, and this vehicle will be something we will be able to utilize,” she said.

Instead of a thatched basket, this hot air balloon incorporates unique seating specially crafted to allow those in a wheelchair to slide on and strap in with a five-point harness.

“You take a board, and the person rolls up in their wheelchair, and they can just scoot themselves onto that board and right onto that seat,” Casey said.

The seat is 22 inches off the ground, “the perfect height for wheelchair transfer,” he said.

The seating is made of aircraft aluminum and stainless steel, and was crafted locally by Allform Welding Inc., a Carlsborg-area business owned by Dan Donovan.

Air worthiness certification

The hot air balloon, which underwent its inaugural flight Monday, received a restricted airworthiness certificate after being inspected by Washington Flight Standards District Office representatives Sept. 18 in Renton, Stout said.

The restricted certificate means the balloon can perform untethered flights only within 25 miles of Sequim Valley Airport and a few other cities chosen by the crew, including Albuquerque, N.M., where the crew is headed next month.

Before an unrestricted certificate that allows flight in all locations can be granted, the crew must complete five takeoffs and landings with the balloon and put in 10 hours of flight time, Stout said.

The crew has been working all week to complete the takeoff and landing requirements at Sequim Valley Airport, Casey said.

“Now we are just putting the flight time on it,” he said.

The crew had finished about three hours of flight time as of Wednesday, Stout said, with the remainder expected to be completed in mid-October.

Inspiration

“I have been flying for 30 years now, and I always get that question, multiple times a year, from someone who is a special needs individual, which is 'How can I fly?'” Stout said.

That desire to take flight got Stout to thinking, “There has got to be a way to get people in the air safely so they can enjoy something that is totally unique for them,” she said.

So she worked with Casey to come up with a design and got to work making the dream a reality.

“It has taken us three years to get the program literally off the ground,” she said.

And already this week, two people living in the area have experienced tethered flights at Sequim Valley Airport.

“We've had two . . . in the bench seat already, and just the joy is absolutely awesome,” said Crew Chief Jeff Perry.

“The look on their faces is just absolutely amazing — just the feeling of levitating,” Casey added.

“For someone who is stuck in a wheelchair looking up at the rest of the world all their lives, to be able to look down and watch their wheelchair just disappear — I can hardly even imagine what that must be like.”

It will be “a lot of fun to see people experience that” in the future, he said.

Multi-state tour

The first event for the Dream Catcher Program will be to offer rides to seniors Saturday in the city of Bonney Lake through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Stout said.

The next stop will be Sept. 29 in Boulder, Colo., to support autism awareness in that community, followed by a stop Oct. 1 at the New Mexico School For the Deaf in Albuquerque.

The balloon will then participate in the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, scheduled Oct. 3-11, before a stop Oct. 17 in Leavenworth to provide rides for veterans.

Although no events are slated now for the North Olympic Peninsula, “we would like to do something for Clallam Mosaic here in our area and for the veterans groups,” Stout said.

Clallam Mosaic is a local nonprofit organization that serves individuals with developmental disabilities in Sequim and Port Angeles.

Chrysalis is seeking donations and sponsorships to help fund the Dream Catcher Balloon Program. All donations are tax-deductible.

For more information, visit www.dreamcatcherballoon.org.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Chris McDaniel can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or cmcdaniel@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: September 23. 2015 6:28PM
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