Last year Pnina and I participated in a charity auction, and we had the winning bid on a couple of adventure trips: one was a hot air balloon ride and the other was a glider flight.
We were planning to do the glider flight ourselves and to give the hot air balloon ride to Pnina’s parents. The second half of this plan kept falling through — each time Pnina’s parents visited, it was too late in the season for them to go on the balloon ride. The vouchers were set to expire soon, so we decided we’d better just use them both ourselves. Last Saturday morning we did both the hot air balloon ride and the glider flight, back-to-back.
We did all this in the Portland area because that happened to be the closest available location, and also because we had already planned to visit Portland for my grandmother’s 94th birthday.
For the hot air balloon ride we had to wake up at 4:30 AM and drive to a small airport in Aurora:
There were a total of 9 passengers on this balloon, plus one pilot. We spent the first hour just getting the balloon ready for the flight — unpacking it from the truck and filling it up:
Once it was vertical, we all climbed into the whicker basket. The basket was divided into six compartments — four for passengers and two central compartments for the pilot and his gear.
For the most part, the balloon ride was incredibly peaceful and quiet. I didn’t even notice when we took off — I was looking through my video camera and before I knew it we were off the ground. The notable exception is that whenever the pilot pressed the lever above his head to light the fire, that sounded like a jet engine. We all got special pilot’s headphones to block the noise, but only Pnina and I ended up using them the whole time.
I have to admit that I felt a little bit of vertigo up there. There’s something about being way above the ground in a not-fully-enclosed compartment that gets to me. At 6’2″ I was the tallest guy on the balloon, and the edge of the basked was slightly below my hip, which gave me that I-could-easily-tip-over feeling. It wasn’t a huge deal — I just ended up leaning inward most of the time. Pnina had no such problem She loved it up there.
It was really cool to see the view from above, and this area around Aurora was gorgeous. We saw a great sunrise, several mountain peaks, and random patterns in the farms and lakes below us.
The landing was probably the best part. The thing with balloons is that you can’t really control where they go very well. All you can do is make the air hotter to cause them to go up, or lay off and allow them to drift down. The pilot had all kinds of GPS equipment and electronic charts that told him which direction the wind was blowing at different altitudes, so by making the balloon go higher and lower, he could sort of try to get the balloon into the right direction. But this process is not perfect.
We were planning to land in a different airport, but instead we landed in some random guy’s farm. We even brushed against a couple of pine trees on the way down. This farmer guy happened to have some kind of family reunion going on, so he and his family were sitting outside in lawn chairs, drinking beers and chatting, when our balloon touched down in their yard. After we landed (but while the balloon was still vertical) our pilot called out to him asking if it’s OK for us to land there, and the guy said that it’s fine. Our pilot said that in 11 years of ballooning he’s only been turned away 4 times (in those cases he simply took off and landed in some other, more welcoming place nearby).
After we landed, and after the ground crew (with the van) found us, we packed the balloon back into the truck (which is sort of like deflating an air mattress, except a lot more), and we drove back to airport.
On the way back, one of the other passengers told us that she saw a news story on TV the night before about a balloon that caught fire in Vancouver BC (here’s the story). Summary: the balloon caught fire when it was still tethered to the ground, ready for takeoff. The pilot asked everyone to get out and most of them did, but two people were still onboard when the tether broke. My guess is that as more people got off board, the balloon had a smaller net weight, which increased the chance of the tether breaking. Our pilot told us that he occasionally takes skydivers up. The first time he did, he had four people jump at once. This caused the balloon to switch from 700 feet / minute downward to 600 feet / minute upward, and gave him a big scare. Anyhow, back to Vancouver, the balloon was now engolfed in flames and it shot 400 feet into the air before it collapsed from the flames and landed in a park nearby. The two people onboard died. This is the story our co-passenger heard the night before going on a hot air balloon ride! Our pilot asked her not to discuss it until after we landed.
Back at the airport, the pilot and his wife prepared a toast of memosas and a nice brunch spread. Pnina and I didn’t know food was included, so we brought a huge picnic lunch of our own (that mom prepared — mom, you’re awesome), and we ended up sharing it with everyone. The pilot and his wife were really happy to have different food for a change. Needless to say, everyone loved the hummus.
Before the toast, the pilot told us the story of the first hot air balloon ride ever. It took place in Paris in 1783, with various dignitaries in attendance, including Benjamin Franklin. Back then they believed that it was smoke that caused balloons to go up (as opposed to simply hot air) so they built smokey fires underneath the balloon. This caused the passengers to become black with ash during the flight. This first flight landed in some random peasant farmer’s field. The peasant naturally assumed that these were a couple of demons come to destroy his home, so he took his pitchfork and set about destroying the world’s first balloon. Since then, balloon pilots made a habit of bringing a bottle of champagne with them to give to the landowners wherever they happen to land, as a way of proving that they are not demons. Our pilot had a bottle of champagne for the farmer in whose field we landed.
I discussed a bit of the economics of ballooning with the pilot. It was particularly interesting because he used to be a software engineer. A balloon like this costs about $70,000, and there are additional expenses: the truck, fuel, etc. Altogether, it’s about $100K. He gets over $1000 of revenue for each flight, so in theory he can make it all back in 100 flights. You can only fly in the summertime, but you probably still have enough flights in one season to recuperate your cost, and the balloon has a several-year lifespan. The pilot said that he doesn’t make as much money as he used to, but he doesn’t consider this to be work either. He’s up at 4 AM, but by 9 AM he’s done with work and he has the rest of the day off. Also, he gets the whole winter off. Not a bad deal.
If you’re interested in going on a hot air balloon ride, I highly recommend this company: http://www.portlandroseballoons.com/.
By 9 AM we were done with the hot air balloon experience, so we drove over to McMinville, home of the Spruce Goose (see map above).
We had the option of going up together, or of going on separate flights. We chose the latter because that gave us each the opportunity to pilot the glider for a short time in the air.
The glider itself is a very light, engineless, 2-seater plane. Everything is simple and mechanical — one pedal for each foot, a yolk, and four gauges. A different plane (a small powered sesna) pulls you with a ~ 50 yard tether. When you are up in the air (around 5000 feet), you push a big red button to release the tether and you’re off on your own.
The pilot sits behind you, and up front you have a big glass dome canopy and a beautiful view all around. It’s very quiet and in our case it was also very smooth: we had an exceptionally windless day.
I tried my hands at piloting the glider, only for about 30 seconds or so. I managed to do two turns to the left and one to the right. I found that I had a tendency to pull the yoke back during a turn. This causes the glider’s nose to point upward, which apparently is not the right thing to do during a turn. But otherwise I did OK. After these few turns I gave control of the plane back to the pilot behind me. I figured that with all my messing around we were losing altitude, which makes the flight that much shorter — no good. I could definitely go for taking glider lessons in the future, though. My pilot, Jim, told me that he learned to fly powered planes first, but he thinks that you’re better off learning gliders first because it forces you to understand how wind moves and how to make a plane react to it.
The flight was only about 15 minutes, much shorter than we expected. But it was fun anyhow.
Also, they didn’t allow any cameras onboard. Why? Because the glass canopy is fragile and too many passengers before us put nicks and cracks in it with their own cameras, so the owners put a moratorium on taking cameras up. It’s too bad because the views were great, but at least we got our aerial shots earlier in the day on the balloon.
If you’re interested in taking a glider flight, this is the info: http://www.cascadesoaring.com/
I have to caution that the owner of this place, Joe, is kind of a jerk. When we talked to him on the phone (e.g. to ask for directions) he always hung up as we were saying “OK so we’ll see you soo…”. When Pnina was up in the air with him, he made some moderately chauvenistic remarks. So, we can’t give a huge warm recommendation to this company, but the flight itself was great.
If you’d like to see more photos…
Hot Air Balloon: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8678601@N04/sets/72157601769072865/
Glider Flight: http://www.flickr.com/photos/8678601@N04/sets/72157601763007568/