People confined to wheelchairs usually experience the world from a â€œbelt buckleâ€ perspective, looking up to see the faces of others. The point of view shifts, however, for those fortunate enough to soar in â€œSerenaâ€™s Song,â€ the worldâ€™s only FAA approved wheelchair accessible hot air balloon.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The graceful blue balloon is the inspiration of Gary Waldman. As the father of a disabled daughter, Waldman experienced first hand the magic that rides along with a hot air balloon.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Serena Waldman, the balloonâ€™s namesake, was only two years old and suffering from cerebral palsy when she and her father were invited on a balloon ride. The formerly unresponsive girl began to laugh and shriek with joy. Her reaction inspired Waldman to begin a mission to bring the same magic to others. He began by purchasing a balloon and christening it â€œSerenaâ€™s Song.â€Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Waldman partnered with Phil Gray, a pilot and balloon designer, to take the ballooning experience to other persons with disabilities. Since then the duo has gone back and forth across the country to various fairs and festivals, bringing an opportunity to enjoy the freedom of balloon flight to people who would otherwise not be able to do so.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Waldman and Gray are assisted in this mission by corporate sponsor Veolia Transportation, an international entity deeply involved in the world of persons with disabilities. As the operators of transit systems around the world, Veolia also supplies paratransit services to the disabled communities they serve. In addition to financial support for â€œSerenaâ€™s Song,â€ the company has committed their employees to volunteering as ground crew and support staff. Veoliaâ€™s help has been an answer to prayer for the two balloonists.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The process of setting up the balloon is like a carefully choreographed ballet. First out of the colorful van is the specially constructed basket. What sets â€œSerenaâ€™s Songâ€ apart is the gate on one side of the basket â€” wheelchair wide and hinged to swing out. A safety bar lifts to the side, leaving the basket is accessible to those who couldnâ€™t climb into a regular balloon basket. View ports are woven into the side of the basket to permit even someone sitting in a wheelchair to experience the view.Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Next comes the bright blue envelope, emblazoned in white with the â€œSerenaâ€™s Songâ€ logo (the international symbol for â€œwheelchair accessibleâ€ with the addition a red heart) and the corporate logo of Veolia Transportation. The envelope must be removed from its carrying bag and stretched out in position to be properly attached to the basket.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â To inflate the envelope, a large fan is rolled into place. Before long, the limp fabric begins to billow and lift. Once a sufficient volume of air is in the envelope, the burner is ignited to heat the air allow the balloon to float. Volunteers are used throughout to process, finally becoming human ballast to hold the basket in place as the envelope reaches for the sky.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â While some balloons offer â€œfree flightâ€ rides, subject to the prevailing breezes, â€œSerenaâ€™s Songâ€ remains tied to the earth. A tethered flight provides greater control over the balloonâ€™s route and ensures a safe landing space for the more fragile passengers carried by the balloon. From heights of twenty to fifty feet, the passengers can enjoy the experience of flying and a perspective they may have never seen before â€“ looking down on other people!
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â For more about the Waldmans and a list of Serenaâ€™s Song appearances, visit the official website at http://www.serenassong.com/serenassong.html.Â Â
Â© 2007 Mary Beth Magee