Northwest NEWS

September 10, 2001

Front Page

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Where have all the hot air balloons gone?

By Bronwyn Wilson
   Senior Staff Reporter
   In past summers, hot air balloons in showy colors decorated the Woodinville skyline at sundown. Hanging like Chinese lanterns above the Sammamish Valley, they were as much a part of Woodinville as metal cows and old wooden barns needing a fresh coat of paint. But as more housing and businesses cropped up in and around Woodinville, the open area once used for landing balloons began to decrease.
   "There's more parking lots, more roof tops and less open field," said Jay Woodward, owner of Balloon Depot, Woodinville's first balloon ride company which began with one balloon in 1979. Woodward, who took over the business in 1992, said the area back then was well suited for balloonists. "It was a nice little valley, pretty well sheltered from Puget Sound breezes."
   Tom Hamilton, "Balloon Life" magazine editor and publisher, is a pilot for Airial Hot Air Balloon Flights in Snohomish. He remembers seeing pictures of the Sammamish Valley and how it looked in 1980 before ball fields and businesses moved in. Said Hamilton, "It was a vacant area." He compared the vacancy to how it looks today, "The valley has become a lot more developed making it difficult to fly and navigate the balloons."
   Hamilton and Woodward now avoid the built-up Woodinville area and fly their balloons out of Snohomish. "The more open spaces you have, the less risk overall," said Woodward. "The Snohomish area looks pretty good for awhile."
   Having made friends with major landowners in the Snohomish River Valley, Woodward knows who welcomes balloon landings and who doesn't. Plus, he likes the spectacular views the area has to offer. "The Snohomish River is gorgeous and there are lots of trees. My stress level has gone down since I stopped flying in Woodinville."
   Hamilton explained why it's helpful to know major landowners and remain on good terms with them. "When we take off, we have a goal in mind. Most of the time we land in those places. People will often ask, 'Where are we going to land?' We have some destinations in mind, but every flight tends to be different. We travel with the wind. We're really dependent on the air currents. On occasion, we have landed in back or side yards." According to Hamilton, radios keep him in contact with his ground crew. He said that he lands at the invitation of the landowner after his crew below gains the approval.
   Woodward recalled a memorable moment when he asked a farmer's permission to land in his field. Once given the okay, he gently landed the wicker basket in the midst of blackberry vines. That was the easy part. The tricky part, however, was to avoid swarms of cranky bees who didn't like the balloon disturbing their daily beehive duties. "I think I'm the only one who got stung," said Woodward of the experience, which only now seems humorous.
   But it's the experience in the air that captivates and draws Woodward and Hamilton to ballooning. Hamilton describes what the experience feels like, "You're suspended in space and you get to see things you'd never see from the road itself."
   Woodward said that most people who decide to ride in a balloon for the first time expect a bumpy ride. "Everyone's expecting lots of motion," he said. "But what it ends up feeling like...you're sitting stationary while the artist at Disneyland scrolls this big elaborate picture beneath you as you hang there." He said the most frequent comment he hears at the end of a ride is, "That was nothing like I was expecting."
   The thrill of a balloon ride, said Hamilton, is "being up in the air and seeing the world from a whole new perspective. You're basically under a bubble suspended in space and you've got a 360 degree view."
   He also said that while aloft at 3500 feet, there are times when he can see as far off as Mt. St. Helens. For added amusement, Hamilton will sometimes lower the balloon in a wooded area and let his passengers pick leaves from the trees. He said that people on the ground watching the balloon maneuvers often think there's an emergency when a balloon gets too close to the ground. Balloons can look very close to colliding with the earth when they are actually 400 to 500 feet up. "People aren't always used to seeing balloons and aren't familiar with how they operate," he said. He remembered a time his wife flew her balloon over a park in Arlington and performed a technique balloonist's call "splash and dash." The maneuver involves skating the basket along the lake like a sailboat. But Hamilton said that when his wife dipped into the lake for some splash and dash fun, people witnessing her drop toward the water presumed she was headed for a crash. One person on shore immediately jumped into a rowboat and headed out to rescue her. Another person raced to a phone and called 911.
   To prevent situations that could provoke trouble, pilot and passengers keep a sharp lookout for power lines, and also, in radio contact with other balloons. Woodward emphasized the safety of hot air balloon travel and said, "Statistically speaking, it's the safest form of aviation there is."
   To fly a balloon a pilot must first pass an FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) written exam, obtain a prescribed number of hours of instruction, make a solo flight, a flight to a specific altitude and pass a flight test. Still, caution is exercised. A balloon rally, held in Kent, was cancelled when the area became too built up. Businesses now sit on landing fields that the balloons once used. "Now there's one in Winthrop in March," Woodward said of the rally where balloons in all sizes and colors take to the air at the same time. An event called "Balloon Glow" continues to brighten Auburn's Good Ol' Days and Kla Ha Ya Days in Snohomish. At the evening affair, balloons are securely tethered and inflated as burners ignite large yellow flames illuminating the balloons from the inside. Luminous patterns of shimmering color fill the night landscape. Said Woodward, "They look like Christmas tree ornaments."
   Arlington and Auburn, as well as Snohomish, still have open areas for launching and landing balloons. Enthusiasts enjoy the sport in the morning and shortly before or after sunset from June to September. On occasion, April and May. Said Hamilton, "The Pacific North "wet" is a little more challenging because our season is a lot shorter."
   Balloonists still fly Woodinville but Woodward suspects that as the area develops further the others will move out too. When that happens, Woodinville's decorations in the sky will come down.