Woman pilots balloon with hot air flair

Tigard Festival of Balloons draws crowd of about 15,000
by: Jonathan House, HOT AIR HARE – Debi Kingston pulls down the Energizer Bunny balloon as it deflates on Friday.

TIGARD - The crowds were big, the generosity abundant, and the weather spectacular. Participants in the RE/MAX Tigard Festival of Balloons could not have asked for a better weekend, said organizer Dave Nicoli.

Attendance was reportedly up 30 percent from last year's festival with 15,000 people estimated to have crowded into the festival grounds at Cook Park this weekend, Nicoli said.

As of Tuesday, organizers were estimating that about $50,000 had been paid out to the charities that assisted in managing the event.

But as Nicoli was so eager to point out, 'The biggest positive was the weather.'

With wind conditions always a concern for hot-air balloon pilots, the cooperative skies were a welcome asset to the event, especially to a returning favorite that towers at 166 feet and demands a lot of attention with its hot-pink coloring.

'We're twice as tall as some of the balloons you'll see out here,' said Glo Kehoe, pilot of the Energizer Bunny Hot 'Hare' Balloon, before Friday's Night Glow.

Known as America's largest hot air balloon, the brightly-colored Energizer Bunny bobbed among an Alpo dog food can, a strawberry and a floating moving truck during the balloon festival.

'We're like Paul Bunyan to (the other balloons),' Kehoe noted as she pointed toward the box in which the deflated 1,200-pound hare-raising balloon was packed.

But don't let the size of the balloon fool you, Kehoe said.

'Once it's up in the air, it will go the same speed as the wind,' Kehoe said.

Traveling at about 500 to 1,000 feet up in the air, the giant shadow-casting bunny always draws a crowd. Touring the country with the Energizer balloon, Kehoe and crew chief Sue Dietze, of Tigard, are never surprised to find a crowd of motorists who followed the balloon to the landing destination, where ever that may be.

'We've landed in an apartment complex and even a cul-de-sac,' Kehoe noted. 'You have to land which ever way the winds take you. But it has to be somewhere big enough to lay a 16-story building on its side.'

The Energizer Bunny was one of 25 balloons to inflate at the festival this year. The roaring fires that sputtered warm air into the balloon pockets seemed to be the biggest crowd-pleaser as families watched from their lawn chairs.

But as for most pilots, the biggest thrill for Kehoe, who has been flying for the last 26 years, is being in the air.

'I call it my magic carpet ride,' Kehoe said Friday before setting up for the Night Glow. 'It's like you're floating and the world is revolving around you.'

But more than just balloons drew crowds to the festival this weekend. Nicoli noted that 130 people participated in the 5K run, about double the amount from last year, and the soccer tournament had 51 teams this year compared to last year's 20 teams.

Just two days after the event, Nicoli was already discussing next year's festival. He wants to add a chili cook-off, a barbecue cook-off and maybe a volleyball tournament. With the success of the community event Nicoli said he was just eager to continue with it.

'You're very tired when it's over, but it's always great when it's a success.'