July 19, 1999
Mark Albedyll's balloon, Autumn Sun.
Mark works on the rigging for his balloon as he readies for the rally.
by Natalie Everett Pibel, special to the Weekly
For many, one of life's most pleasant surprises is finding a hot-air balloon overhead. Mark Albedyll admired them, too, from his Woodinville home and wondered, "What's it like up there?" To satisfy that curiosity, his wife bought him a balloon ride for Father's Day in 1988.
A balloon pilot today, and now living in Snohomish, Albedyll says, "It's one of the romantic things people look at. They think, 'I've got to try that just once.'"
Albedyll piloted one of ten hot-air balloons at Snohomish's Harvey Field last Saturday for the Kla Ha Ya Days festival's new Rally in the Valley.
In a quiet explosion of gorgeous colors against an often-pale Northwest sky, balloons with names like Portland Rose and Flying Blossom joined Albedyll's Autumn Sun, the balloon in which he took his second ride.
"The first flight cost $100; the second cost $15,000," he said. One balloon ride and Abedyll was hooked. He took his family to balloon flights around the valley and bought a balloon with two other people, though only one of them knew how to fly.
"Within a week I was working on the chase crew for a balloon company in Redmond," he said. On the chase crew, Albedyll ferried passengers to the launch site. While the balloon was in flight, he followed it in a truck from the ground, keeping close contact by radio. Even though the balloon is 70 feet tall and 50 feet across, it can be lost from sight in a flight over tree-covered hills and valleys.
"It's not always easy to land a balloon," says Albedyll. "You can't just turn the balloon and land it here or there. You're at the mercy of the wind."
A balloon pilot has only two choices: up or down. With occasional blasts from a propane burner, he creates a differential in temperature inside and outside the balloon that makes it rise or fall. Then you have the wind. At 1,000 feet, it may be blowing east. At 1,500 feet, it may blowing north, and at 500 feet, south. So piloting is like a three-dimensional chess game, says Albedyll.
"You decide where you want to be when you land. You get wind directions and speeds from the airports, put up helium balloons and watch them, then determine where you want to launch that will get you toward the target. Even if you want to land in the same place every time, you might have to choose from a dozen different take-off sites to end up there. No two flights are the same in a balloon," he said.
Nevertheless, in an hour-long flight, the pilot can enjoy 50 minutes, says Albedyll. "You don't think about time too much when you're flying a balloon. You're just taking in everything," he said.
Before ballooning, aircraft travel didn't interest him, Abdedyll said. "You move so fast, you don't have a chance to see what's below you. But in a balloon, it's like taking a walk in a park. You can look down and see the Sammamish River snaking around. You have more time to take in the whole scope of the world around you," said Abedyll, who added that unlike an elevator, there's no sensation of movement when you rise in a hot-air balloon. It's so quiet, that except for the burner blasts at five-second intervals, you can hear dogs barking on the ground.
The price of this hobby can be a downer, though. A private-sized sport balloon is $15,000 to $20,000. Commercial balloons start at $60,0000 or $70,000. You need instruction, which is not easy to find, and a pilot's license for either private or commercial flights. Once a year, your balloon must pass inspection. After 400 to 600 hours of flight, the balloon's cloth portion, called the "envelope," has to be replaced, Abedyll said. Nevertheless, Abedyll remains "an ambassador for ballooning," he said.
"I probably fly 15 hours a year--once every week or two weeks in summer," he said. It provides Abedyll a quiet contrast to his noisy job as a metal fabricator. When people pull their cars off the road to watch him flying overhead, he says it's a boost to the ego.