Balloon ride 'like a race car'

Balloon ride 'like a race car'

DANVILLE — It's 5:30 a.m. Saturday, and the sun is barely peeking over the East Central Illinois horizon.

But 11-year-old Kylar Pollard, of Danville, has already been up for 40 minutes, eagerly awaiting his first hot air balloon ride.

"He said, 'Is it time for me to wake up yet?'" mom Jennifer Pollard says at a pilot's briefing at Danville Area Community College, recalling what happened when she stepped into his bedroom earlier that morning. "He's been counting down the days since Sunday."

Kylar, who has cerebral palsy, can't walk.

But that morning, he flew over Danville in pilot Tony Sandlin's handicapped-accessible balloon, Glory Be, courtesy of Sandlin and ride sponsor Richard Woodard.

A pilot since 2002, Sandlin, of Fishers, Ind., is one of 32 who flew in the second annual Balloons Over Vermilion festival, held Friday and Saturday at the Vermilion Regional Airport.

Last year, Sandlin brought Glory Be and its unique basket — which is large enough to accommodate a wheelchair and allows a rider to sit and see through a glass door — to the two-day event and provided tethered balloon rides to people of all ages and abilities both evenings.

This year, the owner and operator of Midwest Balloon Rides brought two balloons — including Out of the Blue — due to the popularity of the rides.

On Friday night, "we took 184 people who waited for a ride," Sandlin said, pointing out that high winds that caused officials to scrub the evening's mass launch from the airport also caused him to get a late start. "Tonight (Saturday) will be the good night. The weather will be perfect."

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This is also the second year Sandlin and Woodard, through his sponsorship, provided a ride to a local child with special needs.

Woodard, who runs his own computing business, said he's pleased "just helping people do something they might not normally do."

He was also pleased to see Kylar in the passenger seat this year.

"He plays (AMBUCS') Challenger baseball, which I'm very involved in," said Woodard, the local chapter's treasurer.

Jennifer and husband Joe have two other sons — Nolin, 13, and Brodie, 12. Nolin also has cerebral palsy.

Kylar was diagnosed shortly before he turned 2.

"At first, we thought he was just a late walker," Jennifer recalled, adding that when they got the diagnosis, "We said, 'OK, let's do this.'"

Kylar shares his parents' positive and determined attitude. Jennifer said he doesn't let his disability hold him back from doing "typical boy things."

"He loves playing cars and trucks. He loves dirt and mud. And he loves playing baseball and watching the Cubs. He inherited that from his dad," she said of the latter interest.

"He also loves school," Jennifer said of her son, who will be a sixth-grader at South View Upper Elementary this fall. "He likes being with his friends and learning new stuff. And he loves to color and draw pictures."

"He's just an awesome, happy-go-lucky kid," added Lori Lyons, an AMBUC who oversees the challenger baseball league and summer camp.

She recommended Kylar for the ride after learning he took a tethered ride last year and expressed an interest in "going all the way up in the air.

"He uses his abilities to do so many things, and he's always willing to try to do whatever he's able to do," Lyons said. "He sees no boundaries."

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Around 6:30 a.m., an hour after the pilot's briefing, Kylar and his dad, both dressed in matching blue challenger league T-shirts and red caps, watch Sandlin and his crew — pilot John Derado, of Lebanon, Ind., and pilot Keith Shaffer and his wife, Michelle, of Carmel, Ind. — start the cold inflation.

"Look, it's the Cubs' colors," Jennifer says to Kylar, pointing to the balloon's red, white and blue envelope, which soon stands several stories tall.

Once Sandlin goes through the safety check, Joe wheels Kylar into the basket. Then the pilot secures the boy's chair with a special harness system.

"It's like a race car," Kylar says, breaking into a wide grin.

"He'll smile like that the whole time," says Jennifer, who unlike Kylar is afraid of heights and is happy to let her husband and Woodard accompany him on his ride.

Shortly before 7 a.m., the balloon lifts off the ground, and Jennifer and a number of onlookers wave to Kylar, who they watch through the glass door.

The balloon glides anywhere from 5 to 12 miles per hour over homes and businesses; then over Lake Vermilion, where Sandlin makes a quick splash down, to the delight of Kylar and several boaters.

"We don't usually fly over water, so this is really fun," Sandlin says.

Then, the balloon climbs to 1,300 feet and continues on its southwest path, allowing its passengers to see State Line, Ind., Oakwood and Interstate 74.

"Where's Chicago?" Kylar asks, perhaps hoping to get a glimpse of Wrigley Field.

"It's waaaaay up there," his father answers, pointing north.

Sandlin lands the balloon near the Vermilion County RC Club's landing strip on Hungry Hollow Road. The crew, Jennifer and nearby residents Chuck and Becky Cline and three relatives visiting from out-of-town are there to greet them and help the balloon land.

After packing up, Sandlin and his crew gather around Kylar and say the "balloonist's prayer," a post-flight tradition for all first-time riders. Then they head back to their hotel to rest up before the evening activities, but not before the pilot gives Kylar "trading cards" of his balloon for him and his brothers.

"Was it cool?" Jennifer asks her son, who's still grinning.

"He had a blast," Joe says. "He just smiled the whole way."

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