We flew with Vista Balloon Adventures, the Pacific Northwest’s largest and oldest hot air ballooning company. They typically fly from April through October, though our pilot told us they don’t often fly early in the season due to the weather conditions. I have to admit, as someone who’s afraid of heights, I was a little nervous about hot air ballooning for the first time. My first thoughts were:
1) Is it safe?
2) Is it worth it?
After doing some research, I found that yes, it is quite safe, and I absolutely think it’s worth doing at least once!
A Brief History of Hot Air Ballooning
The hot air balloon is the first successful human carrying flight technology. Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes performed the first untethered manned hot air balloon flight in 1783 in France, and French aeronaut Jean Pierre Blanchard performed the first hot air balloon flight in the Americas in 1793. In modern balloons, the envelope is made from nylon fabric and the inlet of the balloon is made from a fire resistant material like Nomex.
Hot Air Ballooning Safety
I did a significant amount of research beforehand, and read on CNN.com and other sites that hot air ballooning is “one of the safest means of flying in existence.” Other sites claim that it’s as safe as climbing a mountain or going on a charter-fishing trip. On the Vista Balloon Adventures site, they point out that, “Statistically speaking, the most dangerous part of your day will be driving to our launch location!” Pilot error usually plays into the rare accidents that have occurred, like not seeing a power line.
In the U.S., the Federal Aviation Administration regulates hot air ballooning. All commercial balloons must be inspected after every 100 hours of flight time, as required by the F.A.A. Pilots must also be certified and check weather conditions before flying to ensure passenger safety. I found this site to be a helpful resource for other safety concerns: http://nvaloft.com/2016/09/07/heres-what-you-need-to-know-about-hot-air-balloon-safety/
What to Bring & Wear
It’s recommended that passengers wear layers, as it can be chilly in the early morning hours. Once you’re in the air, the propane burner provides a lot of heat. As a perpetually cold person, I found that with a jacket, the temperature was very comfortable. I’d recommend wearing closed toed shoes or tennis shoes so it’s easier to swing your legs over and into the basket upon takeoff/landing. I’d also recommend bringing a camera!
The hot air balloons in the Vista Experience include about an hour of balloon flight above the Willamette Valley. We arrived a little after 5AM to make it in time for sunrise. The conditions were a little foggy with some clouds on the horizon, but no rain. I would assume July to August would be a great time to fly in Oregon, as the weather is best during these months. There were several other balloons flying with us that day, and after a brief talk on safety and the experience, we were ushered to our respective launch points to inflate the balloons.
The hot air balloon inflation process was an interactive experience. First, the burner system is attached to the basket, which is then tipped on its side. Then, the deflated balloon envelope is attached and laid flat on the ground and a powerful fan is used to blow air into the base of the envelope. Once it’s partially inflated, the crew blasts the burner flame into the envelope mouth. A couple of our group members had a chance to participate in this part of the process. As you can see, it’s hot work!
The burner flame heats the air and eventually builds up enough pressure to completely inflate the balloon. At this point, our pilot and the crew held the tipped basket upright and in place while each of our group members swung over the side of the basket. The pilot went over some last minute safety information, and with that, we were off.
Aaand…. Lift Off!
Take off felt almost surreal. Besides the occasional blast of the burner flame, the hot air balloon floats leisurely and in complete silence. There’s no wind in your face since you’re flying in the air current. Hovering just above tree level offers a completely unparalleled vantage point. Geometric plots of farmland, livestock, copses of trees, the winding Willamette River, and hazy mountains in the distance greeted us as we ascended.
Skimming the Water
Our pilot managed to skim the surface of the river with the bottom of the basket before lifting off again, proving the level of precision possible with hot air ballooning. We flew at both low and high levels during the flight. Many modern hot air balloons will travel around 2,000 feet in the air, as this height is the most comfortable for flight. The basket was very secure with lots of handholds. Combined with only gliding gently through the air, I found that my fear of heights didn’t affect the experience.
Hot Air Balloon Landing
Since the wind direction and other weather factors influence the course of the flight, each balloon lands in a different area that changes with each flight. We landed lightly in a farmer’s field and were helped out of the balloon. It was a little bit of a bumpy stop, but pretty smooth in all.
Meeting the Crew
Our balloon was named “Thunder,” so the crew in the van with the trailer chasing us was called “Thunder Chase.” The crew followed on the ground as we flew, and caught up to us as we landed so the transition was seamless. We helped to deflate the balloon and pack it into the bag before heading back to the original launch site for brunch.
Afterwards, we were treated to a catered brunch with yummy breakfast options and juice and mimosas. It was a nice touch at the end of the trip and a chance to chat a little more with our pilot. Vista Balloon Adventures also had a booth with free posters that you could have signed by your pilot to remember the trip.
Looking for Volunteers
We didn’t make it this year, but our pilot told us about the Festival of Balloons in Tigard. The featured attraction is the hot air balloons, but there’s also live music, craft vendors, a beer garden and more. Our pilot told us that she would be giving crew training lessons at the event.
Many pilots offer free rides to trained crewmembers. Teams help with the hot air ballooning equipment, assembly and disassembly, and transport of passengers. Our pilot travels around the country, and said that her crew has traveled with her to various locations. Sounds like it could be a cheap, novel way to do some sightseeing!
So, Is It Worth It?
In my opinion: totally! Oregon is such a naturally beautiful place. There’s nothing like seeing the sunrise on a clear morning from a balloon hovering just over the tree line. But really, just the experience of being in the hot air balloon is something. I’ll definitely be doing it again!
Thanks for reading along! If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reply in the space below!