Ballooning over the Willamette

Me in braces and Kellen on their 16th birthday, in a balloon basket in 2013.

Someone gave me the idea years ago to gift “experiences” instead of “things.” It was while I was trying to instill some good ideas into my child’s head. I was hoping that childhood memories of neat things happening might mask the fact that I couldn’t afford to give very many things or very often. I don’t know if it worked, but we do have some great memories. One of my ideas was to take Kellen on a hot air balloon ride as a birthday gift when they turned 16.

It has been a lot of years since then and I wanted to go up again, so I bought tickets for two from Vista Balloon Adventures for Pedro for a Christmas gift. I added a note that I hoped he would invite me, ha ha! It’s nice not to be so poor anymore, and we seem to have adventures all the time. He chose the date of September 25, and we woke in the dark and arrived before dawn at the airstrip in Newberg, Oregon. Hot air balloons lift off at dawn because that’s when wind conditions are best.

Other passengers waiting in the dark with us for our balloons to arrive.

Vans showed up, pulling trailers that held the balloons and their baskets. We were grouped and assigned to balloons by our weight. Pilots then called us over and asked us to help.

Pedro and another passenger held the balloon open while big fans blew air in.
Here a Vista Balloon worker walks underneath the balloon to make sure there are no snags or tangles as it fills.
After a good amount of air has been forced into the balloon, the burners are turned on, to heat the air. This is what makes the balloon rise, and soon it was upright.

There was a scramble moment, when the balloon approached weightlessness, and we were asked to climb aboard quickly, to hold it down! The basket has hand- or footholds, and they also gave us a stool to use. We climbed up over the basket walls and dropped our feet into it.

It was our turn to lift off! We looked down at two balloons that had not yet lifted.
We left the airstrip behind

One thing I find amazing (but logical when I think about it), is that there is no wind in a balloon. If the balloon rises into an atmospheric layer that has higher wind, you’ll feel a little breeze only until the balloon catches up and is flowing with the wind, then it’s calm again. The basket is very heavy, sturdy, and stable. It is an extremely peaceful way to see the world from above. Most of the time it’s totally silent, except for the murmurs of delighted passengers. And then the pilot turns on the burner to heat the air, and that is very loud! It’s also hot, so tall people need to wear a hat. Pedro and I were not affected, ha ha.

We rose with the sun. In this photo you can see orange smoke from wildfires and on the ground a thin layer of morning fog.
Our pilot pointed out these two balloons lifting off from another balloon company in the Willamette Valley.
A bird’s eye view of new construction
Pedro and me ❤
The balloons all tend to go the same direction, because that is where the wind takes them.
Our shadows over a Hazelnut grove. Hazelnuts are a major Oregon export.

Our pilot explained how they “steer.” As one moves up or down in the atmosphere, there are subtle shifts in wind. Say, at 200 feet, winds are 8 knots out of the north, and at 300 feet, winds are 12 knots out of the northeast. To change direction, the pilot opens the vent in the top of the balloon to sink, or turns on the burners, to rise. Our pilot had a can of Barbasol shaving cream and squirted it into the air to watch how it fell. That helped her know where to take her balloon.

Our pilot, Kelly, has 26 years piloting experience.
In this photo, our basket is “resting” on the surface of the river.

The pilots at Vista Balloon do this neat trick where they set the basket onto the surface of the Willamette River. That’s what is going on in the photo with me and Kellen above. What’s really happening is that the pilots are carefully keeping the balloon basket at the exact level of the surface of the water, because it certainly does not float. Our pilot kept us on the river a long time, waiting for the other balloons to arrive so we could see what it looks like, but they were not able to join us. The one in the photo above couldn’t catch the wind right and finally had to give up and move on.

That’s the corner of our basket, and our balloon and the other one reflected on the water.

We watched the fog dissipate, and tried to pick out landmarks. We spotted a couple of bright orange fields of pumpkins, some vineyards, some orchards. We watched a dog running across a field. Our world is so beautiful, especially when you get to see it from a new perspective.

After an hour, it was time to find a landing spot. As you can see from the photos, the Willamette River valley is an agricultural area. The company has formed relationships with many of the landowners out here and the farmers let them know which fields are ok to land in at which times of year. This late in the season there is a lot to choose from because a lot has been harvested.

Harvested fields.
Other balloons landing in a field.
The shadow of our balloon as we get closer to the ground.
Vans pulling blue trailers have been chasing us across the valley, trying to anticipate where we will end up.
The ground rises to meet us.

Though we were often ahead of all the other balloons that morning, when it came time to land, it was our turn not to hit the wind right. Our pilot had to take us up to catch a different wind so we could back up and try again. That put us on the ground last. But we finally touched down. We landed so gently I could hardly believe it, just a bump, and that was that.

After landing, Vista crewmembers from the vans grabbed the sides of the basket to keep it on the ground while the pilot opened the vent all the way and began deflating the balloon. After a while, we were invited to climb out, but asked to hold on to the basket still, so it didn’t lift now that it was lighter. The bigger guys were asked to hold down the corner away from the wind. A little while later, the balloon was lying on the ground, about half full of air. The basket was disconnected. Next we all had to pitch in to deflate and pack up the balloon.

Everyone helped to deflate the balloon.
Then we started dropping the balloon into a giant duffel bag. The people up close dropped it in, then walked to the end of the line to grab more balloon.

We had a little kid on the flight, and the pilot asked him to climb up on the duffel bag and jump around to squish more air out. Then the bigger people sat on it. Finally we were able to get it closed. Then it had to be lifted and that took a lot of people and coordination. Somebody yelled, “One, two, three, lift!” And with each lift, the bag would scoot a foot. Eventually that was loaded too. The very last thing was to load the basket on, then we closed up the trailer and all climbed into the van for the ride back to the Newberg airport.

Pedro helps lift the balloon bag onto the trailer.

We waved goodbye to everyone and went in search of a cafe. We had worked up an appetite and were ready for breakfast!

6 thoughts on “Ballooning over the Willamette

  1. Oh my goodness! That was a great Christmas gift for someone who likes adventure and hard work. Not a fan of either but it’s fun to look at someone else doing it. We used to see all the balloons at the annual festival in Albuquerque often when H lived there. Beautiful but never temped to try it. I’m a land lubber. 🙂 Now what will you put under the tree for him? Never mind.

    1. Yes, Marlene, it turned out to be a great gift. The day was so lovely. Even the thin smoke on the horizon wasn’t too bad. Newberg is an area I don’t know very well, so that was also part of the adventure, driving around to find the airport, then driving around afterward to find a place to eat. It’s a cute little area. There are some major catastrophes about the town in the news, though, eeks. It’s a country town so there are conservatives battling liberals. *sigh*

      What will I put under the tree next? Oh gosh, more bungee jumps, if they offer gift cards this year. And who knows what else? Cross-country skiing or snowshoeing? He likes winter sports. I do not, but I’m willing to support his loves because he supports mine so well.

      Oh, and the Albuquerque balloon festival is still one of my dream vacations. I would love to see it. Seems like there are a hundred balloons and that would be amazing. I went up during a balloon festival in Colorado Springs one year. I think there were 50 balloons? Anyway, it was phenomenal to be one of them.

      1. The best gifts are those of experience which you have already discovered. I would do winter sports before going up in a balloon, but that’s just me. Chicken little. I’ll send a real note soon. I’m finally reaching consciousness.

  2. How cool is this! Seems a history in all things weather might really enhance this experience too. Thanks for sharing how it all works. There used to be a Balloon Fest in a nearby town but the small golf course they used to land on is now apartments. Sigh. I’m with you on the “experiences vs stuff” idea. I think we all get to the point where we don’t need one more “thing”.

    1. Ha ha! You are right! I must have told you my first career was in meteorology. Anyway, yes, as the pilot was explaining, I instantly thought of upper air wind charts that I had plotted in my lifetime, and the thousand weather balloons I must have launched, and realized that I knew very well how wind direction changes at subtle changes in altitude. It all made sense immediately. As for things, I’ve realized that as I get older, I have “thing” flags that go up immediately. Something I think is just adorable in a thrift shop might make it into my hand, and then I think, “How long until this becomes clutter?” and then often I’ll go put it right back. Kellen actually out of the blue thanked me for the experiences not too long ago, saying they realized how experiences gave them an advantage in perspective over their peers who had not had a chance to do so many things yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s