Michael Glen sticks out among the 3,000 hot air balloonists in the United States, and not just because of the cartoonish, bee-shaped balloon he pilots.
It’s also the wheelchair.
The 39-year-old Chandler, Arizona, resident was paralyzed from the waist down when he rolled his pickup in 1996. He wasn’t wearing his seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle.
And in 2006, he became the world’s first paraplegic balloonist.
Glen uses his unique status to try to motivate others, especially children, and he travels across the country flying and giving inspirational speeches.
“No matter what happens in life you can still do things and achieve your dreams,” he said.
This week, Glen was in Albany to fly in the ATI Northwest Art & Air Festival.
On Friday morning, just after dawn, about 30 brightly colored balloons dotted the sky.
Glen pulled the trigger on his burner, sending a whooshing orange flame into the belly of his balloon.
And he and passenger Jordan Meekins of Albany rose from the ground and climbed higher in “Joelly Little Bee.”
Nearby were two balloons considered the parents of Glen’s baby bee. Though it’s about half the size of the other two striped insects, Glen’s balloon nevertheless stands about 50 feet tall.
He said the bees are the only group-flying balloons in existence.
“They are very well known. ... Between the winds and the magic of the pilots, they can make them hug and kiss in the sky,” Glen said.
Glen helped design and build his bee balloon in 2010 through his job at Zing Aerosports in the Phoenix area. The company’s owner also owns the bees.
His bee also is unusual because of its basket, which looks like a chair lift at a ski resort.
Glen designed the basket himself because traditional balloon configurations wouldn’t work well with his disability.
With his chariot seat, Glen can pilot the balloon while sitting down and easily transfer from his wheelchair to the bench.
The setup also allowed Meekins to fly in style.
The 32-year-old was paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle crash about 10 years ago.
“A kid pulled out in front of me, left me with nowhere to go,” he said.
Friday morning was a once in a lifetime opportunity, Meekins said, before the flight.
“I’m pretty psyched. It’s a little nervewracking,” he added.
But he’s also acknowledged that he’s a bit of an adrenaline junkie, even today, and he usually gets his fix from hunting and fishing.
Like Glen, Meekins is an example that life doesn’t end becauseof a wheelchair.
About two years ago, he helped form a nonprofit called Accessing Oregon, which aims to help get disabled people working and in the outdoors again.
“We’re pretty small but it’s growing. We’re trying to get the word out that there’s a lot of things people can do if they want to,” Meekins said.
Meekins said after the balloon ride that flying in the bee to 1,000 feet was “awesome.”
But so was meeting Glen.
“It’s really cool to be able to see people like him and see that inspiration. It’s what kind of motivates me to do what I do,” Meekins said.
For Glen, the biggest reward of taking others flying is seeing the enjoyment on their faces.
“They always turn into a 10-year-old kid, eyes big. ... You won’t see anyone with a frown on their face near a balloon,” he said.
Glen grew up near hot air balloons; his dad was a pilot. “I probably went up with him a few hundred times. My first ride was when I was two weeks old,” Glen said.
Despite his experience, the Federal Aviation Administration initially denied his application for a pilot’s license because of his disability.
A person without a background in balloons probably would have given up, Glen said.
“It was kind of a blessing in disguise. I had to kind of get used to living life in a wheelchair, go through all of those emotional and physical challenges,” Glen said.
And he also had to earn enough money to purchase a balloon.
He ended getting the FAA to change its stance thanks to the support of balloon pilots and manufacturers.
“Whenever the government sees something unusual or different, their first answer is almost always no,” he said.
He’s had similar but rather minor instances in everyday life, where people automatically are leery of his ability because of his wheelchair. And, of course, that often ends up with him determined to prove doubters wrong.
“I can do anything I set my mind to,” Glen said.
Glen’s new dream is to raise $90,000 to purchase a wheelchair-accessible balloon basket. Funds are being gathered through his website, rollingpilot.com.
With such a basket, riders can sit securely and comfortably in their own wheelchairs and enjoy the view.
“There are some people that feel way more comfortable in their chair, and the only time they leave it might be when they go to bed,” Glen said.
Glen also is trying to get more disabled people to become balloon pilots, and helped design a training program.
Earlier this year, a man in the United Kingdom who used the program became the second paraplegic balloon pilot in the world, Glen said.
For more information on Glen, or to donate to support his ballooning, go to rollingpilot.com.
For more information on Accessing Oregon, go to accessingoregon.org.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: ATI Northwest Art & Air Festival
WHEN: Concludes Sunday, Aug. 24
WHERE: Timber-Linn Park, Albany.
6:45 a.m. — Balloon Lift-off
10 a.m.-2 p.m. — Young Eagles Flights
11 a.m. — Art and Food Vendor Booths Open
11 a.m.-3 p.m. — Red Robin Family Zone
1:30-3 p.m. — Neal McCoy, Festival Stage Performance
11 a.m.-3 p.m. — Festival Stage Wine/Microbrew Garden