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Hot air balloon company helps wheelchair-bound passengers take flight

Now those who only dreamed of soaring in a balloon can fly with the eagles. One of Kevin Cloney’s three hot air balloons — called Chariot of Fire — has been outfitted with a basket that can accommodate a wheelchair.

Cloney owns Love is in the Air Ballooning LLC, 1725 S. Rainbow Blvd. The wheelchair-accessible balloon has the fifth such basket made in the U.S., custom engineered by Lindstrand Balloons USA of Illinois. It took six months to build.

The Chariot of Fire features a polycarbonate ramp that flips up to double as the wall for one of the narrow ends of the basket. It is see-through, so it acts as a window. Similarly, window “panes” are at that end of the basket for the seated person. The wheelchair is locked down and its passenger strapped in securely, much like a race car driver.

One of its first passengers was North Las Vegas resident Shannon Burkett, 57, who has severe arthritis and pulmonary hypertension, which restrict her ability to get around. As a result, she watched her weight climb to 400 pounds — anathema for a nurse educator — and resorted to using a wheelchair. One day, her friend, Angel Obney, called and suggested they have a fun day together.

“When I said, ‘OK,’ she said, ‘Good, Can you be ready at (5 a.m.)?’ ” Burkett said.

Despite the early hour, Burkett agreed. She didn’t know it then, but that day, June 14, was a turning point in her life. Obney had a surprise planned — they were going up in a hot air balloon operated by Love is in the Air.

They arrived to find a crew inflating the 160,000-cubic-foot balloon, the sunrise coloring the sky behind them.

“My dad had been a pilot, and I loved anything to do with (flying),” Burkett said. “But I’d been in a wheelchair for two or three years — I’m morbidly obese — so I never dreamed I’d be able to do this.”

An apprehensive Burkett was strapped aboard, and the balloon lifted silently into the air, carrying her aloft.

“I just started crying, I was so happy,” she said. “It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.”

Locating a manufacturer of a basket with a wheelchair ramp came about after Cloney and his fiancee, Vickie Smith, a complementary care practitioner, hosted an obese passenger, Diane, on a group ride when they were in New Mexico. Diane also had mobility issues.

“Unfortunately, she had to be pushed in and shoved in, like a shoehorn,” Cloney said. “And when we landed, she couldn’t get out. We had to tip the basket over on its side so she could crawl out as everyone stood there watching.”

Smith, an empath and healing touch instructor at her business, Capstone Wellness Center, 612 S. Jones Blvd., said she could feel Diane’s reaction.

“I deal with people whose movement is restricted and that keeps them from fully participating in their lives,” she said. “ … I could feel her mortification. When we landed, she had to crawl out onto the desert, and by this time, I’m almost in tears (for her). When we got home, I said, ‘Kevin, there has got to be a better way for people who have this dream (to fly).’ “

Their research led to Lindstrand. Since acquiring the Federal Aviation Administration-certified wheelchair basket in May, Cloney has flown dozens of wheelchair-bound people of all ages.

The maiden flight for the nearly $100,000 balloon system was May 10. The balloon is 93 feet tall and has a gross lift of 3,520 pounds. It handles up to six passengers, four if a wheelchair-bound person is aboard. The basket was reinforced with a steel tubular frame to handle the wheelchair and its passenger. Now, Love is in the Air claims to be the only balloon company in Las Vegas capable of handling wheelchair-bound passengers.

As the wheelchair-bound person’s face is about even with the lip of the basket, the polycarbonate ramp/window allows a better view. The balloon also has a number of safety features, such as the material, Hyperlast, which can withstand a puncture so well, the hole can be massaged away. Another material to ensure that the balloon does not catch fire from the burner is Nomax, used in firefighter suits. A Q-Vent makes it more manageable in high winds.

Another safety feature: Kevlar cables instead of steel ones to avoid electricity should the balloon touch power lines.

Cloney, 61, has been ballooning for the past 16 years. He said Las Vegas’ hazards are cactuses and rocks and that landing zones are constantly changing as new development comes into the valley.

The flight was an epiphany for Burkett, sparking something in her, and she vowed to make a change. She joined Weight Watchers and has already lost nearly 20 pounds.

“Until this, I had become a spectator in my own life instead of a doer,” she said. “I don’t want to watch it go by. I’ve got a new lease on life.”

Flights start at $275 per person. For more information, visit loveisintheairballooning.com or call 702-726-0400.

Contact Summerlin Area View reporter Jan Hogan at jhogan@viewnews.com or 702-387-2949.

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