The only hot-air balloon in the UK designed to fly wheelchair-users as a way of raising funds for charity has a new partner on the ground - a Ranger XLT Double Cab pick-up on long-term loan from Ford. The versatile 4x4 is being used to transport and tether the balloon before flights, and to recover it along with its occupants afterwards - wherever they may land.

Ford is already closely associated with Gowrings Mobility, which owns the balloon and is the UK's leading manufacturer and supplier of wheelchair passenger vehicles. The company, based in Newbury, Berkshire, produces a popular wheelchair passenger version of the Ford Transit Tourneo Connect 1.8 TDCi and a wide range of swivel seats, power chairs, ramp kits and other items.

These devices are used to help people who need to get in and out of vehicles more easily, transfer into a car from a wheelchair, or travel in their own chair safely.

The Gowrings Mobility balloon has been bringing the dreams of wheelchair-users to reality for the past three years. A special gate and ramp allows easy access, and the basket is designed to provide a fine view even for someone in a seated position. Restraints allow the wheelchair to be fastened securely in place.

Gowrings Mobility makes the balloon freely available to organisations and charities, which offer flights as prizes in fund-raising competitions, raffles or auctions. This can take it all over the UK, to show-grounds and festivals or to launch-sites near a winner's home, so the Ford Ranger is likely to cover up to 5,000 miles a year.

The vehicle, a 2.5TD 109PS turbo-diesel with manual transmission, was handed over to Gowring Mobility’s Managing Director Linda Ling by Ford Mobility's Andy Dougherty and Rachel Moore at the start of October. They were attending the Mobility North show at the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, which was organised by Gowring Mobility.

Finished in steel silver/titanium and dark grey, the Ford Ranger has a striking "cloudy" livery to match that of the balloon. All-terrain ability, strength and capacity are major considerations for Gowrings Mobility’s Mike Horn, who leads the team that flies and manages the balloon.

"We try to land the balloon in fields, and to recover it the Ranger may have to tow the trailer over farm tracks, narrow lanes and generally bumpy ground," he says."That means we need good off-road capability, and the Ranger has enough grunt to carry five people and tow the trailer and all the gear."

That gear consists not only of the balloon, basket, stainless-steel tanks containing up to 200 litres of propane fuel and ancillary equipment, but sometimes also a second balloon and "envelope", so the Ranger's double-skinned steel load box comes in very useful, with its 1.5sq m loadspace and drop-down tailgate. Gross payload is 1135kg and towing capacity a hefty 2,800kg.

"Apart from performing to our required standard, it's an attractive vehicle," says Mike Horn. "It's well-liveried and a bit of an eye-catcher - and of course the idea is to let people know all about what we do." The balloon has generated considerable publicity - and a string of testimonials from wheelchair-users who have enjoyed the liberating experience of taking to the open skies.

The Ranger will also be helping to increase awareness of MAGIC (Mobility and General Information Centre), the freephone information service supported by Ford.*

*MAGIC is available to anyone experiencing mobility problems/issues, their families, friends, carers or medical professionals in the UK. Information is available on the Motability scheme, disability benefit entitlements, mobility assessment centres, charities, vehicle adaptation companies, specialist holiday companies and Ford vehicles and dealerships.

Published : 12/11/05 Author : Melanie Carter

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