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SKY SAILORS.

Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard

RUNNING WITH THE WIND

Upcoming hot air balloon events in Oregon include: June 16-19, Tigard Festival of Balloons, Tigard. Details: www.tigardballoon.org. August 25-27, Northwest Art & Air Festival, Albany. Details: www.albanyvisitors.com Oct. 20-22, Wildhorse Hot Air Balloon Bash, Pendleton. Details: 800-654-9453

Commercial hot air balloon operators in Oregon include: Pacific Peaks Balloon Company, (503) 590-5250; www.PacificPeaksBalloons.com Portland Rose Hot Air Balloons, (503) 638-130; www.PortlandRoseBalloons.com Vista Balloon Adventures, Inc., (800) 622-2309; www.vistaballoon.com

- Source: Willamette Aerostat Society

BEND - Dawn's early light painted pink the clouds scattered high above the central Oregon plateau. A perfect day, obviously, to play outside.

Unless your playground is the sky, and you are one of two dozen hot air balloon pilots participating in the fourth annual "Balloons over Bend" rally. Then appearances mean nothing compared to what the unseen wind is doing.

For balloonists cast their fates to the wind in more ways than one - even when the breeze is so gentle most people wouldn't even notice it. Hot air balloons cannot be steered, although pilots can often find a more favorable wind direction by changing altitudes.

Just how fickle the sport of sky sailing can be was illustrated here over the weekend. Balloon crews gathered shortly after dawn Saturday and Sunday at Summit High School on the western fringe of Bend, planning mass launches that would carry them east, over the booming tourist town to the wide-open spaces beyond,

Both days, however, test "pi-balls" (short for pilot balloons) showed breezes aloft wafting from the launch site straight toward mountains and/or thick forest. Both days, event "balloonmeister" Steve Peters convened a pilots' meeting and declared it unsafe to fly out of Summit Field.

On Saturday, most of the pilots opted to inflate their balloons anyway and tether them to the ground, turning the event into an impromptu carnival for the several hundred people who had come out to view the launch.

Young children laughed and screamed as they touched the fabric balloon envelopes during the inflation process. Others rolled beneath the giant airbags as they lifted from the ground a few inches at a time.

People of all ages lined up for a chance to climb into one of the balloon's baskets and take a brief "ride" to the end of the ropes, 100 or so feet into the air.

"That made it a real community event, with all those kids and rides," said Barb Malcom, festival organizer. "For the event, it was a better deal than if all the balloons had simply launched and floated away."

The colorful balloons have a definite Pied Piper effect.

About 2,000 people turned out at Pilot Butte State Park at dusk Saturday for a "Night Glow," in which five anchored balloons were turned into giant Chinese lanterns, illuminated by fiery blasts of propane from their burners.

The next morning, after the second planned launch was called off, a caravan of cars followed many of the pilots to an alternative launch site at a middle school - named, aptly enough, Sky View - on the northeast side of town.

Peters told the pilots the prevailing winds from there would give them an opportunity to get in a short flight to the southeast before they would encounter "a wall of trees."

Koh Murai of Portland, who has been involved in hot air ballooning since 1978, agreed to take a Register-Guard reporter aloft aboard the "YuZakura."

"It means cherry blossoms in the morning," Murai said of his balloon's name. "We had to do something with all this pink" (the dominant color of the 90,000 cubic-foot envelope).

It took the YuZakura's crew of a half-dozen friends and family members about 20 minutes to unpack and assemble the balloon and partially inflate it with ambient air blown in by a large portable, gasoline-powered fan. Then Koh fired up the propane burners, heating the air inside the envelope enough to raise it off the ground and begin tugging at the basket.

After a brief safety talk ("When we land, we're going to go bounce-bounce-bounce, so flex your knees a little bit to absorb some of that shock"), Murai gave the balloon a 20-second blast from its burners and the schoolyard began slowly receding below us.

The most noticeable sensation of balloon flight is the lack of any sense of motion. Because the balloon moves with the wind, there's not even a breeze across your cheek to create a sense of movement. Close your eyes so you can't see things on the ground pass beneath you, and you could be standing in your living room.

But the views are penthouse perfect - a panorama of snow-covered Cascade peaks, green fields, and colorful balloons against a blue sky. At one point, we looked straight down on a giant red strawberry, er, balloon decorated to look like a strawberry.

"It looks like the smart money is to stay down low and putter along at about 3 to 4 knots," Murai said after studying the movements of the other balloons.

He also began looking ahead for places "that might be convenient to land. ... Balloonists are pretty much like small general aviation aircraft pilots; you're already looking for a place to land when you take off."

Murai, who serves as balloonmeister for the annual Great Reno Balloon Race (Sept. 8-10), says hot air ballooning is much easier and safer than when he first took up the sport.

No longer, for example, do balloons have to carry anchors and long ropes to hold them, swinging like a pendulum, until a ground crew could run up and grab it. "The burners, the baskets, the envelope material, the vents ... it's all come a long way," he said. There's even a special device designed to squeeze the air out of the balloon after a flight, simplifying the packing process.

Yet Murai said he and his fellow pilots no longer get as many inquiries from would-be balloonists as they once did.

"The sport is kind of at a mature state," he said. "You'll find an awful lot of pilots are in their 40s and 50s. Due to the expense, it's become difficult for people to get involved."

How expensive is it?

"Imagine owning a nice boat, a 32-foot plus boat," he said. "It's that kind of dollars.

"And, being a federally-regulated aircraft, we also have mandatory inspections, mandatory parts replacements - whether it's worn out or not, it doesn't matter, we have to change them every year."
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Title Annotation:Recreation; Hot air ballooning the most-fickle of sports
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 13, 2006
Words:1084
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