Hot air balloons date back centuries.
The principle is simple: Direct heated air into a large, fabric envelope, making it buoyant enough to lift a basket holding a passenger.
A Frenchman took the first untethered flight in 1783.
Modern hot air balloons, with their onboard heat source, were developed during the 1950s.
“The U.S. government envisioned a hot air balloon-like device that fighter pilots whose planes were hit could use to float out of hostile areas,” explained Forey Walter, owner of Avian Balloon Corp. “The idea never worked, but the research generated enough interest that manufacturers started making hot air balloons for individuals.”
Walter discovered the sport four decades ago and has been a fan ever since. He described his business and passion during a recent interview.
S-R: What was your introduction to ballooning?
Walter: A buddy and I saw a TV program in 1971 about a man who flew a balloon from California to Chesapeake Bay, and we decided we needed one of those things. Two or three months later, a Popular Science article featured a guy in Coeur d’Alene who manufactured balloons. So the next spring we went over, had him inflate a balloon to see what it looked like, and we bought one for $2,950.
S-R: How did you learn to fly it?
Walter: The guy had two types of balloons – (FAA) certified and experimental. Certified balloons were a lot more money, but along with them you got flight instruction. Since we were just out of college, the experimental balloon was more than enough for us. But we didn’t want to pay for flight lessons. He said if we could fly a tethered balloon, he’d sign us off to solo. The only time he was ever in a balloon with us was when we went up and down attached to a rope. Everything else we learned by flying. And some of those lessons were a little tough on the body.
S-R: Such as?
Walter: He told us to either fly early in the morning or late in the afternoon. We asked, “Why’s that?” and he said, “Just because.” We followed the rule for a few months. Then one July day we went to Odessa, where I grew up, and flew in the morning. We were going to wait until evening to fly again, but there was no wind in the middle of the day, and we thought, “Maybe we should fly now.” Well, in the middle of the day the sun beats the ground and you get a lot of thermal activity – hot air rising in columns. And if you’re in a balloon and you get caught in a thermal, you can go up real fast. That turned into a pretty exciting flight.
S-R: When did you start manufacturing balloons?
Walter: I graduated from Washington State University with a degree in park administration. At that time, public-sector jobs were scarce. The guy we bought our balloon from needed a production manager, so I went to work for him. Things went pretty well until he decided it was too cold up here and moved to Georgia. My wife and I moved there for about a year. Then she got pregnant and wanted to come back home, so I decided to start my own balloon business here. It took two years to get my first model certified.
S-R: Have customers requested unusual-shaped balloons?
Walter: Europe’s certification program is more relaxed than ours, so probably 75 percent of exotic balloons are made there. But years ago I helped a friend make a rubber duck balloon, and I made myself a Buck Rogers spaceship balloon, complete with fins.
S-R: When did interest in balloons peak?
Walter: The biggest growth was in the mid-’70s, when hot air balloons were new and relatively inexpensive. Back then we’d manufacture 15 or 20 a year. Sales slowed in the ’80s, when inflation hit real bad, then picked up again and held their own until about 15 years ago.
S-R: How about recently?
Walter: Anymore it’s a real big commitment. Very few people offer flight training, because pilots can make more money taking paying passengers for rides. And balloons have gotten expensive. People with money tend to do other things, like boating. Also, 40 years ago you could inflate a balloon anywhere in the Valley, and there were lots of places to land. Now, with all the development, you and your crew may have to get up well before sunrise and drive an hour to find a place to take off, and there aren’t many places to land. That’s true all over the United States.
S-R: Besides the initial purchase, what costs are involved?
Walter: You may need a trailer, depending on how big your balloon is, and something to pull it. Balloons must be inspected annually, which runs about $300. And insurance is fairly expensive. So unless people fly balloons commercially, the cost per flight can get pretty steep.
S-R: How much do you charge for rides?
Walter: Right now it’s $200 per person to fly about an hour. The total time commitment is two-and-a-half to three hours. My smaller balloon can hold two passengers comfortably, and the larger one can carry as many as six.
S-R: Do customers ever get scared?
Walter: Some are a little queasy at first, but I’ve never had anyone say they wish they hadn’t flown.
S-R: What time of year do you fly customers?
Walter: From the latter part of June, when the weather finally settles down, until mid-October. We fly virtually every day the weather is good. Winter flying is great, too, but it’s kind of a big effort because of the snow.
S-R: How do people on the ground react?
Walter: Generally pretty good. Our biggest problem is when people see the burner go on as we’re landing and think the balloon is on fire. Sometimes they call 911 and the fire department shows up.
S-R: How have balloons evolved since the 1970s?
Walter: The technology end – the burners, fuel system and instruments – has changed a lot. And back in the ’70s, baskets were either aluminum with some fiberglass, or maybe aluminum and canvas. Then manufacturers switched to wicker, which is very forgiving. It flexes, which helps disperse energy when you land. If you hit the ground in something that doesn’t give, you bounce around like a pea in a can. Also, wicker isn’t conductive, so it’s safer than metal (if the basket comes in contact with a power line).
S-R: How many U.S. balloon manufacturers are there today?
Walter: About six – mostly small operations like mine. The biggest manufacturer switched to producing canopies for the military. There’s a lot more money in making stuff for the government rather than for individuals.
S-R: Do you manufacture everything here in Opportunity?
Walter: Everything but the fuel tanks.
S-R: What’s the future of ballooning?
Walter: Good question. We’re losing a lot of older, diehard balloonists as gravity takes effect and their baskets get too heavy to lift. And young people have so many choices of things to do. I’m not down on ballooning, but I’m realistic.
S-R: What are the big balloon events around this region?
Walter: The biggest event is the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede (May 10-12), which is in its 39th year. Closer to home is Valleyfest (Sept. 20-22). There’s also a balloon festival in Quincy (Sept. 14-15), and another in Bend, Ore. (July 19-21).
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Walter: It allows me to support my flying habit by inviting customers along, and they have a great time.