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From the ground and in the sky: Another view of the Balloon Stampede

By Vicki Hillhouse

There’s a reason the daybreak launches at the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede are rife with good vibes.

“My theory is that negative people don’t want to get up that early in the morning,” cracks Shari Gale, crew chief for the Knight-N-Gale hot air balloon team.

For more than 40 Stampedes, Shari and her pilot husband, Tim, have traveled from western Oregon and risen before the sun to launch their hot air balloon in Walla Walla. They are among the longest running participants at the annual festival where inflation starts between 5:30 and 6 a.m. May 11-14 at Howard Tietan Park.

The Gales first crewed at the event in 1979 — five years after the Stampede’s inaugural flight. With the exception of 1981, when Tim had to work, they’ve been back for each one since.

Knight-N-Gale is their fourth balloon since their passion for flight was ignited with a ride 45 years ago. Their first was dubbed Basket Case and was followed by the larger Second Wind. Their third balloon, Checkmate, featured a chess knight in the middle of the balloon’s envelope, flanked above and below the depiction with red checkered panels.

Today’s Knight-N-Gale was made from Checkmate. The skin — or outer fabric — of the balloon is now a colorful stair step spiral of yellow, royal blue, teal and red, but the rest is the same. Those watching the inflations should keep an eye out for a patch from the original Checkmate balloon stitched onto one of the lower panels of the current one as tribute.

The Gales, who celebrated 50 years of marriage this year, travel from Albany, Oregon, for the event that not only nurtured their love of ballooning but has connected them to lifelong friends.

How did you get into ballooning?

Tim: Shari met a fellow who had a balloon. This would have been the last day of 1978. If you can believe, it was 20 below zero. We were visiting my uncle in Bend. We wandered down and heard they were flying from Harmon Park. They invited us to “come on in,” and we did. Shari said, “I don’t know about this.” But when she looked down, we were 50 feet off the ground.

We ended up taking that flight and landed in what is now the Mill District in Bend. We chased and crewed for that pilot for most of 1979, got a balloon in October and took delivery in February or early March. In 1979 we joined on a trip over to Walla Walla for the Balloon Stampede. We crewed in Walla Walla, met (Stampede co-founder) Bill Lloyd, and had a heck of a good time with it. When I had my own balloon, I contacted Bill. He said, “Come over and enter.”

What does it mean to crew?

Shari: To inflate the balloon we start with one person on the fan, which is basically like an airplane prop with a lawnmower engine stuck on the back. It blows cold air into the envelope. At the right moment, it gets turned off and rolled back out of the way. Then we have two people on the mouth, holding the balloon open so the air can get through.

Our balloon has a parachute top with Velcro tabs. We have a person who works the line that goes from the top of the balloon out. That person stabilizes the balloon. That’s probably the most critical position. If you don’t put the right amount of pressure on it, the balloon is going to rock back and forth. It’s also important to keep people off the line.

Once the balloon is filled with air, Tim fires up the flame and we can get the basket upright.

Then, of course, after the balloon is in the air we get to chase it. We pack it after landing and go out to breakfast together. It’s very much a social sport.

What do you love most about hot air ballooning?

Tim: I just have a hoot doing it. It’s like you’re flying a bubble — being able to fly without anything around me. It isn’t a bubble, but it’s close. There’s no wind. Or if there is, it won’t last long. It’s that feeling of freedom. Of course, you’ve got to come back down. Then I think, “Oh, how will I get out of this one?” I look for a place that looks friendly and where I’m not going to cause any damage.

The neat thing about ballooning: With most other forms of aviation, you feel the acceleration of leaving the ground. If the conditions are right, I can land so you don’t even feel like you’ve touched back down. The sensation isn’t even there. It’s all visual.

I’m retired now, but my career was in engineering projects. Every flight is like a project. I’ve been at events where I didn’t know anybody. You meet someone and say, “Hello, you want to crew? OK, let’s get to work.” Within hours, you’ve gathered the people, you showed them what they need to know. That’s the flight — executed and completed. You’ve taken on a path with unknowns, and you make it work.

How has the Stampede changed over the years?

Tim: It’s changed, hasn’t it? We used to start earlier, before Mother’s Day weekend. At the beginning, it was the last weekend of April. Then it shifted to May, and then to October. We’ve only been completely skunked out twice and because of weather; we never got off the ground the whole weekend. We always figured if we got one good flight then we gave a show. We come to fly and have a good time in the air.

The weather has changed, and so has the location. There’s also a shift of focus of the town with the growth of the wine industry.

Shari: When we started ballooning, you still had to pay long-distance [telephone] fees. We’d have all these long-distance phone calls to friends here, there and everywhere, trying to coordinate crews and schedules.

Tim: Email didn’t exist, Facebook didn’t exist, cell phones weren’t really around.

Shari: Now we have a Facebook page for our balloon. When I want crew, I go on and say, “Anyone available Saturday morning?” Sometimes I end up with more crew than I need. Another major change has been communication between the ground and the balloon. When we started, we were on CB radio. Sometimes it worked great. Other times a kid could be playing with his daddy’s radio, and we couldn’t even get through to tell the pilot to change channels.

Tim: GPS also came on.

Shari: There’s an app for your phone called Glimpse. He can start it, and it goes to me and another crew person. We can see what direction he’s going. It tracks him.

Tim: There are apps for hot air balloons, where you can see the elevation, location and things like that. A lot of these things with technology have come along to help us out.

What makes Walla Walla a great place to fly?

Tim: The people. When we first were in one of those times we were skunked out we came back two weeks later. I have to have a flight every 90 days to stay current. We drove back over to Walla Walla and stayed with some friends and figured, “Well, I’ll find one day to get the balloon up.” I was amazed at the number of people who said, “Thank you for coming over and visiting Walla Walla and flying.”

They really missed it badly. These were people off the street. We felt terribly welcome, and we often do in Walla Walla. There’s so many neat people you run into. We’ve had a long string of folks we’ve met that are now old friends.