When a flight is complete we always have the after-flight ceremony, and at some point David will ask the passenger(s) if they enjoyed the flight. So far as I know he's never gotten a negative answer to that question, but I do know that invariably he tells them some variation of the sentiment "Good, but we enjoyed it more." I'm starting to see the very deep truth of that as I continue to grow with this extended family of the air. No matter how much our passengers enjoyed themselves it still remains that we've been able to BRING them this experience; the joy, the sense of freedom, the beauty that is flight, and that makes the returns to us manifold.
This past Thursday we had a very special passenger aboard indeed. A passenger who has been trying to go up in a cross-country flight for a very long time, ever since she rode with us on a tethered flight at a church social she attended, and probably long before that evening. Her name is Hope, and while it's not polite to reveal a lady's age I will say that she's probably in the Top Ten of our Oldest Passengers. I think, however, and much more importantly after Thursday's flight she's been ranked Number 1 on our Most Special Passengers list.
Miss Hope, you see, has had severe cerebral palsy since she was born. I can only assume that she's been in a wheelchair all her life, and she couldn't talk to us with words, but such things don't seem to have stopped her from doing whatever she sets her mind to, and going up for a free flight in a hot air balloon was on her mind. Her family bought her the flight for Christmas and between one thing and another it didn't come together until this last Thursday.
The meet went as planned--a whole convoy of friends and family came along to witness this flight. The wind wanted to be uncooperative at first, but I could tell by the set of David's jaw that as long as he could keep his safety margin intact he was going to make this flight happen if he had to go it alone. Susie, Cookie, Jim and I were there though to make sure he had all the help he and Miss Hope needed to become airborne. A quick test-fit of Miss Hope's wheelchair, a careful arranging of pillows and such and a little quick work with a wrench on Miss Hope's chair rendered it small enough that it would fit inside the gondola. Granted it left just enough room for David and Miss Hope's caregiver Justin to sort of cram in, but that's all they needed!
One propane tank of Skybird's four had to be sacrificed for space but the lightening of the load just made it that much easier to get aloft, and get aloft they did, from a friendly landowner's pasture in Lecompte. The flight itself was one of the more lovely ones--clear skies almost the entire time, lots of fields and forest to fly over, and acres of yellow flowers dotting the landscape. The chase truck and us of the crew had a grand time watching the parade of cars follow us from point to point as we kept just ahead of Skybird, and we even garnered a few extras along the way, folks who couldn't help but notice the beautiful blue and white and orange sight!
The landing was one of the more picturesque David has performed, and actually took place in the same spot as the last time he impressed me with his flight skills. The approach occurred over the course of some fifty yards, with David holding the basket aloft less than a foot over the ground, drifting along like a giant blue and orange seagull-covered snowflake. It never ceases to amaze me what control he manages, and I could see by the joyous expressions on Justin and Miss Hope's faces that they were really enjoying the extra treat. David drifted the balloon carefully across the field like a Pasha in his palanquin, bringing along his passengers on a royal parade toward the eagerly awaiting arms and smiles of family and friends. He even managed to 'run over' a fire-ant mound with the corner of the gondola, just to put the icing on the cake!
The sunset was exceptionally beautiful as we performed the ceremony, and all too soon the family and friends bundled up and headed home. They left us crew with smiles and a deep sense of pride that we could bring such joy to folks, and that we could manage to overcome a few minor difficulties to carry along a wonderful lady whose needs were a little more special than those of other folks. I can't begin to imagine what she's had to overcome in her life, but I know this--the fact that we could in some small way bring some light and joy to her simply by being there to help her dream come true was worth any difficulties, any discomfort. She helped remind us that no matter how hard things might get, no matter how steep the path is, all you have to do is keep moving forward, keep your eye on the horizon and let your determination guide you.
I said earlier that she couldn't talk with words, but she could certainly talk with her eyes and her smile. There's no question about it--we all knew that she was feeling the same joy, the same freedom, the same sense of having done something exraordinary by going up in the balloon, feeling for just a moment that, as the famous poem says, we've slipped the surly bounds of Earth and touched the face of God. We know that feeling very well, and saw it alight and take fire in HER eyes. She's one of us now--an aeronaut, a wind-walker, a traveler with the birds.
Thank you, Miss Hope, for sharing your joy with us.
Photos of Miss Hope's flight can be found here.