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Balloon crash survivor sets sights on the sky

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — What is it they say about regaining confidence after a bad experience – when you fall off the horse, get back on, right?

Imagine, then, when the fall is more than 40 feet and the horse is a hot-air balloon that bursts into flames when it hits power lines. Imagine that the explosion sends bolts of electricity through your body, chars your flesh, barbecues your left arm and leaves you unconscious for three weeks.

Imagine all that, and you might have an idea how monumental it is for Danny Lovato to get back on.

Lovato has never spoken publicly about what happened to him that sunny day during the 2013 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta when the balloon he was riding in – a balloon he had been chase crew chief of for a decade – struck the power lines in Rio Rancho, sending the flaming gondola with him and pilot Mark Kilgore plummeting to the ground.

He’s joked about it a lot, though.

As we talk, he still jokes. Kilgore suffered minor burns – “sunburns,” he calls them – but Lovato was scarred across his torso, was forced to have his damaged left arm amputated at the shoulder and underwent the reconstruction of his derriere, where the electricity from the live wires made its fiery exit – an injury he says has made him the “butt” of many jokes.

“Lady,” he says with a laugh, “if I took my clothes off, I’d scare you.”

But Lovato, 67, is serious about his plan this Sunday to take to the skies once more in the same balloon – well, mostly the same, since the burned wicker gondola had to be replaced – to prove to himself that he is ready to get back on that horse.

“We didn’t get it right the first time,” he jokes. “So maybe we’ll get it right now.”

It wasn’t the first time, actually. Lovato has flown so many times he’s lost count.

The ballooning life began for Lovato and wife, Peggy, when friends Kilgore and wife, Loretta, bought the New Mexico Sunrise 2, a balloon ringed in rainbow colors.

“He asked me if I wanted to be the chief of the chase crew, and since I love telling people what to do I said, sure,” says Lovato, a retired auto parts worker.

The New Mexico Sunrise 2 strikes a power line in Rio Rancho on Oct. 9, 2013, during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Pilot Mark Kilgore suffered minor burns, but lone passenger Danny Lovato’s injuries were far more devastating. (Greg Abernathy/ASK Academy's The Catalyst)

The New Mexico Sunrise 2 strikes a power line in Rio Rancho on Oct. 9, 2013, during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. Pilot Mark Kilgore suffered minor burns, but lone passenger Danny Lovato’s injuries were far more devastating. (Greg Abernathy/ASK Academy’s The Catalyst)

The morning of Oct. 9, 2013, dawned bright and clear, a near-perfect day for ballooning. Kilgore and Lovato were looking to land just after 8 a.m. near Meadowlark and Sara in Rio Rancho where other balloons were touching down.

“Everything was fine,” Lovato recalls. “We saw the wires. Mark said he was going to go above them so he hit the burner and it took us higher. Right at that time, I took off the glove on my right hand and got on my cellphone to call Peggy to tell her where we planned to land. I don’t remember a thing after that.”

Lovato woke up three weeks later in the burn ward at the University of New Mexico Hospital, where he had been kept sedated and had already undergone 18 surgeries, most of them skin grafts, he said.

“I remember waking up, saying ‘What am I doing here?’ and ‘Where’s my arm?’ ” he said.

He took the answers hard.

“I grieved,” he says. “But after a while, you know you just have to move forward. You have to go with it.”

And so he has.

Last November, Lovato underwent his latest, and possibly his last, surgery to repair the wound to his rear. He doesn’t particularly need or want a prosthetic arm, he says, because he does just fine with the one he still has.

“I can drive, feed myself, dress myself, all of that,” he says. “I can even make a bed with a fitted sheet and a cat jumping on the bed.”

What is left, he says, is getting back in a balloon.

But not just any balloon.

“I have been offered lots of rides,” he says. “But I wanted to ride in the Sunrise 2.”

That was a problem. After the crash, the cost of insurance was too high for Kilgore, so he donated the balloon to the New Mexico wing of the Civil Air Patrol.

The balloon has been renamed Phoenix, because, like Lovato, it has risen from the ashes.

Although patrol aircraft can carry only patrol personnel, Wing Cmdr. Mark Smith made an exception for Lovato. Weather permitting, Lovato is expected to soar this Sunday during the last morning of the Friends and Lovers Balloon Rally in Albuquerque.

Lovato admits he is nervous. During last fall’s Balloon Fiesta, standing around launching balloons made his heart race.

“I don’t know if I will even get in that basket when I get there,” he says. “I know it will be emotional. But you know, I’ve got to do it. And I’ve got to finish it in that balloon. That’s where I started. After this flight this weekend, I don’t know if I’ll fly again. But at least I’ll finish the story in that balloon.”

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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