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May 23rd, 2001 Ted Katauskas | Outdoors
 

Into Thin Air

     
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The moon has just dipped behind the Coast Range. I'm standing in the dewy grass beside a landing strip in Newberg, staring down the barrel of a 15 million BTU propane burner. Behind it, crouched inside the cockpit of an overturned wicker gondola, Roger Anderson charges the gas line, lights the pilot and, smiling wickedly, thumbs the trigger.

If Anderson, founder and chief aeronaut of Vista Balloon Adventures, yells something appropriate like "Ignition!" I don't hear it. Because two enormous gasoline-powered fans--the kind special-effects people use to simulate hurricanes--are positioned on either side of the gondola, howling into the mouth of the water-tower-sized bag of undulating nylon I'm holding at the ready for a gulp of hot air.

The shock wave of combustion delivers a body blow. Then a pillar of flame, eight feet long, vaults past my face and eats away at the cold air inside the balloon, the RidgeRunner, one of the largest aerostats in the Pacific Northwest. Now, I should point out that at full bore the twin burners inside my backyard barbecue grill generate 40,000 BTUs. So basically what I'm looking at here, what I'm feeling on my face and inside my rib cage, amounts to the concussive whoompf! of 375 Webers. Lit simultaneously.

After a few such bursts, my Gore-Tex anorak is all but smoking and the balloon has abruptly righted itself, and with it, the gondola and Anderson. Once that happens, the collective mass of a six-person ground crew can do little to dissuade the impatient airbag from its heavenly ambitions. I tumble into the basket, leaving the earth, and its people, behind.

Ask Anderson what he does for a living and he'll tell you he practices the Art of Aerostation. Before he started practicing the Art of Aerostation, Anderson spent 15 years sailing the Pacific in the Valkyrie, a 55-foot, three-masted schooner he built himself.

Now he sails the Willamette Valley in the RidgeRunner, a schooner without masts, with a pear-shaped spinnaker and a cat's cradle of rigging hidden inside. Flying out of Sportsman Airpark in the RidgeRunner, we might as well be motoring a sailboat out of a harbor.

With a sustained blast of hellfire, we rocket into the open sky, climbing 1,500 feet in a few seconds. Oddly, there's no vertigo, no plummeting pit in the stomach. Just an ever-expanding patchwork of farmland below. Anderson pulls down on a vent line and opens a parachute-like valve that plugs a hole in the crown of the envelope 125 feet above our heads, releasing hot air. Suddenly, the Willamette is lapping at the basket. Another shriek of the burner and the basket is clipping leaves off an alder on the riverbank.

A gentle southerly carries us over a heron rookery--a dozen mature firs, each with a single Great Blue perched like an angel atop a Christmas tree--then fields of alfalfa and grass and hops.

It's Sunday, so only bees are working below. We can hear them buzzing as we ride the wind to St. Paul.


Flights leave Sportsman Airpark in Newberg (off Highway 99W, 40 miles south of Portland) shortly after dawn seven days a week, weather permitting. Advance booking required. Call Vista Balloon Adventures, 625-7385, or see www.vistaballoon.com . $179 per person includes celebratory post-flight champagne brunch.




Aerostat: an aircraft filled with a lighter-than-air gas that floats like a cork in the denser air surrounding it.
 
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