Volunteers step up to help Tigard Festival of Balloons

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Tigard Festival of Balloons returns to Cook Park starting Friday. Volunteer balloon chasers will turn out in droves for the festival to help set up and follow the hot-air balloons over the next three TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Balloon pilot Carmen Blakely shows volunteers how to affix various parts on the basket. It will take more than 100 volunteers to track all 24 balloons at this years balloon festival Thousands of people are expected this weekend at the annual Tigard Festival of Balloons, but while the giant, brightly colored aircrafts and their pilots will receive much of the oohs and aahs from spectators each morning, the real stars are the people whose feet never leave the ground.

It takes hundreds of local volunteers to run the festival each year, but along with parking attendants and ticket takers comes a special set of volunteers known as the “chase crew.”

Each balloon has one — a team of four or more volunteers willing to get up well before dawn to help inflate and launch the balloons each morning.

But the chase crew’s real job comes after the balloons leave.

After each launch, crews pack up their gear and race off down the road to find the balloon when it lands.

It’s an important job. Without the chase crew, pilots would have no way of getting back to civilization after flying off into the countryside.

Propelled by nothing but the wind, balloon pilots have little control which direction they fly, and are reliant on others to get back to base. And at 65-feet-wide and weighing in at 1,800 pounds, the balloons are too large for pilots to disassemble themselves.

It seems like a simple job, but balloon chaser Marilyn Barnhart said it’s more than just lending a hand. It’s addicting.

“You are really participating in the festival in a way that you can’t otherwise,” Barnhart said.

Facebook is the place to be for launch information

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Hot-air balloons will only fly if weather permits, and the Balloon Festival's Facebook page is the only place to get up-to-the-minute information about the early morning launches and evening Night Glow.

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A balloon chaser for years, Barnhart now helps organize local volunteers for the festival.

“When I’m around balloons, I just want to touch them,” she said with a laugh.

For chase volunteer Diane Jacobson, crewing at this year’s festival is a return to a hobby that she has enjoyed for years.

“Any chance I get I like doing it,” Jacobson said at special training session last Saturday. “But you don’t often meet people who are involved in hot-air ballooning.”

Jacobson is an old pro, having chased balloons in the 1970s while serving as a nurse in the U.S. Air Force in San Antonio.

“I had a friend who had her commercial pilot’s license, but she was afraid to fly, so we started to crew for a local pilot on weekends,” she said.

After that, she was hooked.

“I knew I’d never buy a balloon of my own, but I loved crewing,” she said.

She crewed for years, eventually moving to Denver, Colo., where she sought out balloonists to work for.

Now living in Oregon, Jacobson said she hasn’t crewed for a balloonist since the 1980s, but got excited after meeting a longtime balloon chaser who told her about the festival.

Volunteer Bob Koeber has chased balloons for years, but never in any official capacity.

“We used to get up early, and we would just follow the balloons ourselves,” he said. “It’s fun to do.”

Koeber, who lives in Metzger, has attended the Tigard festival in the past and never thought he’d be on a chase team.

“I’ve never been this close to one,” he said. “I’ve never seen one of these when they are all stretched out, they’re huge!”

Not a solo activity

by: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Mary Heath, a second-year volunteer, helps inflate the balloon Tierra Madre during a training session for Festival of Balloons volunteers. The Tigard event returns on Friday to Cook Park for three days of balloons, rides and music.So, what does it take to chase balloons?

You’ll need the following: A car, a set of walkie-talkies and a good pair of gloves.

Oh, and a map. Don’t forget the map.

The crews’ day begins early, with a 5:15 a.m. pilot briefing at Cook Park, where pilots and crews are updated on the weather and possible problems.

Each chase crew is given a map, which designates where pilots can — and more importantly can’t — land.

The chase crew makes sure pilots land safely, and legally. It could mean a lawsuit if pilots land in the wrong farmer’s field.

It takes more than 100 volunteers to chase the balloons every day, Barnhart said.

Pilots often have their own chase crews, Barnhart said. But with pilots coming to the festival from all across the Pacific Northwest, many often aren’t able to bring their normal team with them.

Even if they did, local volunteers are an important part of any chase crew because they know the area, Barnhart said.

“They need someone who knows the roads,” Barnhart said. “That way they can get to (the pilots) when they land.”

From the road, crews can point out hazards pilots might not see from the air. They can also get permission from property owners if the balloon needs to make an emergency landing on private property.

It’s far from a solo activity, said Tigard balloon pilot Cheryl Issacs. That’s part of what makes it so much fun.

“When we land, it’s usually in a field or a cul-de-sac, and we make some neat friends,” she said. “People come out in their pajamas with their cameras or wake up their families to come see. It’s neat, and it is so fun. People get so excited.”

The GameTime Festival of Balloons begins Friday at Cook Park, 17005 S.W. 92nd Ave., in Tigard.