In the summer, I’ve often experienced a magical moment early in the morning when I’m out hiking up Pilot Butte, a cinder cone in northeast Bend. I look up to see huge, brightly colored hot air balloons sailing by, so close I can hear the snort of the propane gas firing into the balloons’ envelopes. Sometimes I can even make out the weave of the baskets and see the pilots and passengers inside. I wave; occasionally somebody will spot me and wave back.
“Balloons over Bend” is an annual event. I’ve lived in Bend for more than a decade but have never watched the balloons launch. This year, I decided to go for the gusto. Friday, July 20, my son and I arrived at Riverbend Park around 5:20 AM to see trailers transporting balloons still arriving. People were standing around talking and renewing acquaintances in an atmosphere of warm camaraderie. I walked over to the Heaven Bound trailer and met pilot Chris Whitfield from Albany. He was very friendly and willing to chat and answer my questions. The pilots were waiting to hear from the balloonmeister whether or not they would fly. The weather was iffy. Several small “pibals” (short for “pilot balloons”) were sent up to check the wind.
While we waited, Chris filled me in on some of the basics of hot air ballooning. He said pilots like to fly at sunrise and sunset because that’s when the air is calmest. Pilots need a minimum of 3-mile visibility and 1000-foot cloud ceiling. He explained that lift is a function of the difference between the temperature of the outside air and the air in the balloon. If a day is hot, then the balloon’s air has to be heated more. The hotter the air in the balloon, the more quickly you wear out the fabric. A temperature of 250-300 degrees is max.
I was impressed when Chris told me that he and his wife, Jennifer, built Heaven Bound in their living room. The fabric is lightweight ripstop nylon. They used an industrial double-needle sewing machine, sewing the balloon in sections with a double-fold seam with no exposed ends, similar to the double seam used on jeans. The build took them eleven weeks; Chris said he logged 300 hours.
Jennifer is the crew chief, aided by their sixteen-year-old daughter, Ashley; their ten-year-old son, Nathan; and Chris’s aunt and uncle, Janice and Jason Fast— quite the family affair. First the balloon needs to be laid out and unfolded.
Ashley told me that she helps to hold the mouth of the balloon open as a giant fan fills the envelope with air.
She also helps to attach the vent at the top of the balloon, a process called “tabbing in.” You have to tab in the eighteen Velcro strips at the right place in the right order.
To bring the balloon down, the pilot pulls the 20-30 foot vent line to open the vent at the top, which allows the hot air to escape. Chris said ballooning is like flying a house; there’s a lot of inertia.
I asked him how much it costs to fly. He told me that balloons use 12-18 gallons of propane an hour, depending on the balloon and the number of passengers. Heaven Bound carries 30 gallons and uses about 25 gallons on a typical two-hour flight. At $3 a gallon, the flight costs around $75 for the fuel. Additional expenses include your initial investment for the balloon and all equipment, liability insurance, and an annual inspection fee, ranging from $300 to $500. New balloons cost around $20,000 for a sport-sized balloon and $45,000 to $60,000 and up for a commercial-sized. If you’re content just to take a ride in a balloon, it will cost around $175 and up per person.
Friday morning, the balloonmeister made the decision that the atmosphere was too unstable to fly, but Sunday morning, the weather was perfect. My husband and I had an exciting time watching the crews unfold, inflate, and launch the colorful balloons.
Once Heaven Bound was launched, it was followed by the crew in a chase car.
For a lark, my husband and I followed the balloons on the ground as they drifted northeast over Bend. Not far from our own neighborhood, we saw one balloon descend, clip a treetop, and land in a cul-de-sac.
As soon as that balloon seemed safely under control, we continued to follow Heaven Bound. We drove down a farmer’s road just in time to see the balloon descend as cattle on the ground ran to get out of the way.
The weekend ballooning experience filled me with joy. Not only did I get to see something beautiful, something I’ve never seen before, but I also had the privilege of meeting Chris Whitfield and his warm, friendly family. I wonder why in the world I don’t take more advantage of the special activities and opportunities available to me. I’m glad I got off my duff and went for the gusto. I encourage you to do the same.
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