POW / MIA Message From Above
BY JIM BELSHAW
Jim Tuorila’s most memorable hot
air balloon flight comes with a small bit of irony attached to one
of its more prominent elements—altitude. The veteran balloon pilot
and co-founder of Freedom Flight, Inc., a non-profit organization
that raises awareness as well as hot air balloons, had flown
hundreds of times. But when one of his passengers requested that
he take his distinctive black balloon with the easily recognizable
POW/MIA logo to 5,000 feet, Tuorila acquiesced with little
“I don’t like to fly high,” he
said, laughing. “I’m afraid of heights. I can’t lean over the side
of a tall building and feel comfortable. I probably wouldn’t be
flying this balloon if it weren’t for the issue.”
But the POW/MIA issue and the
balloon are inseparable. The striking black craft with its three
30-foot high POW/MIA logos is like no other and is easily spotted
even in a sky like Albuquerque’s in October, when mass ascensions
at the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta might
number more than a thousand colorful balloons in all shapes and
sizes gliding over the city.
Tuorila’s three guests that day
came with special significance. So he opened up the balloon’s gas
burners and the black craft rose into the air. His passengers were
women married to men still listed as MIA from the Vietnam War. He
doesn’t remember which one asked that he fly to 5,000 feet, but
Tuorila has been a psychologist at a VA Medical Center in
Minnesota for 20 years; he was curious to see what would happen
when they reached that altitude. Balloon flights generally skim
the earth, the better to see and be seen. At 5,000 feet, people on
the ground are barely able to see the balloon. He couldn’t imagine
why his passenger wanted to climb that high.
He said that the moment they
reached the requested altitude will stay with him forever.
“We get up there and she says this
is the altitude the military said her husband was at when he
ejected from his plane over Vietnam,” he said. “She wanted to see
what the world looked like when he ejected. It touched me so
deeply that I’ll never forget that flight with those women.”
Freedom Flight, the POW/MIA Hot Air
Balloon Team, has flown in more than seven hundred events since
its first flight in November 1989. The non-profit now has three
balloons that attend 35 to 45 events a year, staffed entirely by
volunteers. The organization grew out of Tuorila’s
vocation—psychology—and his avocation—hot air balloons.
In 1981, while attending graduate
school at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, he worked with a group
of World War II ex-POWs called the “Lost Battalion,” all of them
survivors of more than three years in Japanese prison camps. That
work inspired Tuorila to write his doctoral dissertation on the
effects of captivity, especially regarding the work of Victor
Frankl and his famous writings following his own imprisonment in
Nazi concentration camps.
While doing his doctoral internship
at the Topeka, Kansas, VA Medical Center, Tuorila and his wife
volunteered to crew for a hot air balloon. When he went to work in
Minnesota, they saw a balloon in flight one day and decided to
In 1987, he appeared on a local TV
program to talk about the emotional difficulties families face
when a loved one returns after years of captivity. On the program
he met the daughter of a Navy pilot shot down and declared MIA.
The daughter told him that the government story of her father’s
disappearance was very much at odds with the story told by her
father’s wingman, who made a point of finding the pilot’s family
to tell them the true story of the incident.
By then, Tuorila and his wife were
crewing on a balloon flown by a Vietnam veteran who had been
encouraging him to set up a non-profit with an eye toward calling
attention to the POW/MIA issue.
Then one day at work, his
professional life and his weekend life coalesced.
“I told my co-therapist, ‘You know,
I’ve been flying and working with balloons for five years now.
What about a black POW/MIA balloon? What kind of attention would
that get?’ “
The co-therapist and co-founder of
Freedom Flight, Vietnam veteran Bill Nohner, thought it was a
great idea. A year later, Freedom Flight, Inc., obtained status as
a non-profit educational organization.
In 1989, the first flight went up.
Its first passenger was Henry Sha, a World War II veteran and
ex-POW who happened to stop his car when the balloon landed
nearby. Invited onboard, he didn’t hesitate.
Now in its sixteenth year, Freedom
Flight continues to attract attention, sometimes through a little
luck. At the 2005 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta,
Tuorila volunteered to give rides to the media. A Voice of America
camera crew making a documentary on the balloon fiesta accepted
his offer. When the crew members found out who they were flying
with, a new angle for the documentary emerged.
“When they found out what we were
doing with the balloon, I think the program changed to include
Freedom Flight and everything we were doing,” Tuorila said.
The change was in keeping with how
Tuorila describes the past sixteen years. “The reception
we’ve gotten over the years make the hair on the back of my neck
stand up,” Tuorila said. “It’s been incredible. I’ve had what I
assume to be a Vietnam veteran come up, put $100 in my pocket and
say, ‘Keep it up,’ then walk away. I’ve had family members of the
missing come up to me with tears in their eyes. I’ve had ex-POWs
come up and thank us. Everywhere we go, the reception has been
positive and overwhelming, and that keeps us flying.”
For more information on Freedom
Flight go to
www.freedomflight.org or call Jim Tuorila at