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Preston’s dream comes true

Preston Lama (left) and his stepbrother, Michael Smart, show off Preston’s balloon.
Preston Lama (left) and his stepbrother, Michael Smart, show off Preston’s balloon. Photo by Joseph Slacian

When Preston Lama was 5 years old, he attended his first hot air balloon rally. He was hooked. “He got to know all the balloon pilots,” his mother, Amy Smart, said. “He’s been in five different balloon camps across five different states. With his love of ballooning, Preston, who is autistic, enjoys designing balloons for his favorite pilots. Last year, a group of pilots talked during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and decided to create a surprise for Preston. “Eighty-eight balloon pilots went together and had (Preston’s) design custom built,” Smart said. “They built a mini replica of a Cameron racer.” They presented a remote-controlled balloon, which includes a small, hand-woven gondola, to Preston over Memorial Day weekend. Preston unveiled the balloon locally on Saturday evening during the Heritage Days Hot Air Balloon Festival at Huntington North High School. “He couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He didn’t realize it was from them until I actually explained to him. He kept thanking me and his stepdad, but I told him, ‘No, this is a gift from the pilots. “He wanted to be a pilot his whole life. Now he is officially a balloon pilot.” A remote-controlled balloon isn’t unusual, but it’s not too common, either. “I’m not too sure how many there are in the United States,” Smart said. “But there is a rally in Albuquerque with about 20 of them. Smart married Chris Smart, pilot of the Dream Catcher Balloon Team based in Roanoke, in 2020. “All of Chris’ pilot friends and all the pilots have always been supportive (of Preston),” she said. “It was a pilot friend from Ohio who arranged it. Eighty-eight pilots were contacted, and they even sponsored to scholarships to balloon camp in his honor because there was so much money made.” The ballooning community is like one big family. “The ballooning community is very close knit,” Smart said. “There’s about 200 that we know, and about 800 across the country.” To inflate the balloon, it takes three propane tanks similar to those used for camping. The balloon is tethered to someone on the ground. “The balloon cannot be untethered because the remote control has only about a fifty-yard range,” Smart said. The balloon allows Preston to live his dream of being a hot air balloon pilot. “He probably won’t ever get a big balloon,” Smart said. “But with his dad owning two, he’ll always be a crew chief for me and pilot of his own RC.”