Lighter-Than-Air: A Bird’s eye view of the Willamette Valley Wine Country
The air is cool and still in the predawn hours at the Newberg Sportsman Airpark. 41 guests are gathered here to participate in a unique kind of flight experience. It is precisely this still air that is required for these towering yet fragile flying machines. The instructions were to meet ½ hour prior to sunrise at the airpark. Hot air ballooning is a labor intensive operation, and as the guests check in, the ground crews gather in preparation for the mammoth task of unrolling the bags of colorful balloon material and dragging out the large wicker baskets.
Due to the wind direction, this morning we must move the launch site from the airpark to a field a few miles away. The wind speed and direction is the deciding factor in everything to do with ballooning. Guests and crew are shuttled in the chase vans to the new launch site. It takes a ground crew of 4 to 5 people for each balloon. You are more than welcome to help with the set up if you are so inclined, and quite a few guests step in to lend a hand. At one point, two “volunteers” are required.
We are all here to experience first hand the amazing feat of flight without wings: Physics in action, warm air rises. Vista Balloon Adventures has 6 such machines, each holding up to 10 passengers. The entire experience lasts 3 ½ hours, including the set up time, the flight, and the brunch.
Although the air may be still and most of the land quiet, preparation for lighter-than-air flight is anything but peaceful. First, the wicker baskets (yes they are wicker) are dragged off the trailer. Not an easy task. Second, the very heavy bag full of the balloon cloth (the same material as parachutes) is also dragged out and then carefully unrolled. The next big task is to attach the balloon material to the basket and fill the balloon with cool air. As this is done, the rigging is attached to the top of the balloon. This is where the passenger volunteers come into play. My sister holds one side of the business end of the balloon open as two fans blow cool air into the interior.
Once the balloon is inflated with cool air and the rigging is set, it is time to heat the air. Now is when it really gets noisy. The two propane tanks are lit and blasts of flame are directed into the inflated balloon. The heat from the propane blasts is intense.
It doesn’t take long for the air to heat, and as the balloon moves from a horizontal to vertical position, the guests are instructed to climb into the basket.
Things are moving fast now, and there is no time to hesitate.
With passengers loaded and the balloon vertical, Chris blasts more heat into the balloon interior and we lift off.
One by one the five balloons rise and take flight like so many dandelions drifting in the breeze.
Once airborne, the only noise is the occasional blast from the propane tanks. It is quiet now and you feel no breeze because we are moving with the wind. The flight is both exhilarating and calming at the same time. The balloons drift apart as the pilots look for air currents by testing different altitudes. This is the quiet flight part that most people think of as ballooning. It has taken quite a bit of preparation to get to this point. Chris patiently answers our questions and occasionally adds heat to the balloon to control our altitude.
We drift with the breeze enjoying the view and the peaceful atmosphere. All of the Willamette Valley with its fields of crops and ringed with hills of grape vines is laid out below us. We watch the other balloons and soak up the beauty of it.
The first balloon in the air was piloted by Vista Balloon Adventures owner Roger Anderson, who is now, as radio communications between the pilots reveal, making a decision on the landing site. Roger decides on a large field just upwind of the town of Newberg. We are at the highest altitude when that decision is made, and it proves to be an issue.
We watch as the balloons one by one touch down in the field. It is obvious that we are too high. We descend as quickly as possible, but it just isn’t going to work. We touch down at the far end of the field, but the spot isn’t right (too close to wires). Our pilot abandons the landing attempt and we shoot back into the air as both propane tanks are opened fully and two flames blast hot air into our balloon. We rise quickly, and the chase van is told “We’re going over the river.” The air current drifts us past the river and directly over the small town of Newberg. There are far fewer options now and this landing is getting interesting.
We drift at tree top level over houses, roads and parking lots. People in bathrobes come out to wave, cars pull over to watch, and barking dogs run in circles in their back yards. Several possible sites are abandoned, and we see how much we are at the mercy of the wind.
This type of landing, in a downtown parking lot surrounded by wires, looks to be much more difficult than touching down in an open field. Chris has spotted a parking lot next to a coffee stand and the chase van is directed to the location. Our ground crew jumps out, rapid fire radio communications fly back and forth between the balloon and the chase crew. I’m slightly apprehensive and thinking to myself that this is an awfully small area close to a lot of electrical wires, but the wind is blowing us away from the wires, and I’m not the pilot here, just a passenger, so my role is just as an observer and I keep my thoughts to myself.
An anchor line is dropped and the five ground crew hold us over the spot. The experience of the pilot and the ground crew are evident as the balloon and basket are jockeyed into a safe position and we slowly lower to the asphalt of the Coffee Barn parking lot.
One by one we exit the basket and told to hold the balloon steady and keep our weight on the basket exterior. We are all clear of the basket except the pilot as the balloon deflates and the basket is pulled over on its side. The intense labor factor kicks in again as the balloon is disassembled and rolled back into the bag and the basket and gear are once again stowed on the trailer. We are close to the airpark and brunch, the last to arrive, having had the longest ride and most exciting landing.
Back at the airpark with all accounted for, Roger gives his traditional champagne toast; “The winds have welcomed you with softness. The sun has blessed you with its warm hands. You have flown so high and so well, God has joined you in your laughter and set you gently back again into the loving arms of Mother Earth.”
Guests and crew dig into the buffet breakfast and discuss the morning’s adventure. There was one surprise engagement and many birthdays and anniversaries celebrated during the flights. Ascension certificates and autographed balloon posters are handed out.
It was a memorable morning.
IF YOU GO:
Vista Balloon Adventures is based at the Newberg Sportsman Airpark in Newberg, Oregon, 35 miles southwest of downtown Portland. 1-800-622-2309. http://www.vistaballoon.com.
We made it a weekend getaway and stayed at the very lovely Crawford Crest cabin, rented through Vacation Rentals By Owner, http://www.vrbo.com. The cabin was 10 minutes from the launch site. http://www.vrbo.com/398465, 503-538-9594.