It takes more than hot air to raise those gorgeous balloons that drift through the early morning skies above Tigard for a few days every June.
The annual Tigard Festival of Balloons rises on the hearts and muscles of about 450 volunteers who pitch in on every aspect of the event to keep it flying high from pre-dawn to past dark for three solid days.
Though many behind-the-scenes team members return year after year, some for decades, to do everything from tethering balloons to helping park cars, volunteer numbers were down last year when the festival relaunched after a two-year pandemic hiatus.
Organizers, hoping to shore up the numbers, are putting out an all-hands-on-deck call for the event’s return next month.
“We come to fruition with a base staff of five to seven,” said festival Executive Director Cindy Murphy. “Aside from that, it’s all volunteers.”
This year’s installment kicks off Friday, June 23, at Cook Family Park, starting with an early morning balloon launch and continuing through the weekend with carnival rides, a car show, entertainment, and plenty of good eats.
Experiencing the majesty of the giant balloons up close is more than worth the sometimes pre-dawn hours, say the faithful, and for some lucky balloon crew members, it occasionally leads to a ride.
“Just being around the balloons, being able to touch the fabric, watching how the balloon rises, how the air goes in it (is thrilling.),” says Marilyn Barnhart.
Barnhart started crewing in 1997 after following her curiosity about a pilot inflating his balloon near her son’s track meet. He took her up on an offer to help that morning, and she got so hooked on the sport she later traveled to festivals around the country as part of his crew.
“Just to be part of it is exciting. To be hands-on and get to see it up close rather than having to be out behind the ropes,” she said of working festivals.
While some pilots travel with their crew chief and small crew, many rely on locals to help move, pack, unpack, fill, and tether the balloons. And “chase” balloons by car to retrieve and help pack up the balloon post-flight.
Barnhart once chased a balloon into someone’s driveway.
“We had been flying over a neighborhood, and people were out watching. We’d go from one cal-de-sac or one street to another, trying to find a good place (for the balloon to land).
When we finally landed, we were in the driveway. They came out in their pajamas and their robes to see a balloon in their front driveway,” she said. “The neighbors all came out and were just really excited to have a balloon there.”
It may sound technical, but no experience is needed.
“Our pilots are great at walking everybody through and giving them the information they need,” Program Director Kristin Romelhardt said. “We’ve even sometimes had people from the crowd just step right in to be a crew member. We need the extra help, and then they get hooked and return the next day. It’s very easy.”
Pilots and their crew chiefs provide on-the-spot training for newcomers, and the festival offers a balloon crew school with a local pilot earlier in June.
Cheryl Isaacs and her balloon La Brisa Del Mar, will be at Cook Family Park on June 17 for the 2-hour training. The class is free and open to anyone interested in learning about the sport.
“It’s not just for our event,” festival Executive Director Cindy Murphy said. “There are balloons flying seasonally, and there are opportunities outside of the event to get involved (in crewing.).”
Individual crew sizes at the festival vary depending on the balloons and the baskets they carry.
“We had the Energizer Bunny (at the Festival) one year. We had 75 people on that balloon alone. It was ginormous,” said Murphy.
Most teams are much smaller, typically topping out at around ten people. The festival needs a minimum of about 100 people each morning to assist with balloons, just under a quarter of the total volunteer force, to fill out balloon crews. And there are already 20 balloons this year – seven more than last year.
The other three-quarters of their volunteers fill operational roles, working as parking lot attendants, admissions staff, set-up, tear-down, shuttle drivers, runners, ticket takers, car festival staff, and more. Many come as part of organizations like the Rotary Club of Tigard that come out en masse to fill out the staff.
“Our volunteers are instrumental in the festival,” Murphy said. “They’re all amazing people.”
Balloon Crew Opportunities
Morning Launch: Assist pilots with unpacking and set-up, navigate or drive during balloon chase, assist with landing and balloon pack-up. Estimated times: 5 am-10 am, June 23, 24, 25. Hours may vary depending on flight duration.
Morning Tethering: Assist pilots at Cook Family Park with balloon unpacking and set-up. Help passengers get in and out of the basket for tethered balloon rides. Help with safety, crowd control, and risk waiver signatures. Estimated times: 5-10 am, June 23, 24, 25. Hours may vary based on weather.
Night Glow: Assist pilot with packing and set up for stagnant display, hold balloon guidelines, hold down the basket, assist with pack-up post Glow. Estimated times: 6:30-10 pm June 23 & 24. Hours may vary based on weather.
Balloon Crew Training: 10 am-Noon, Sat. June 17 at Cook Family Park. Training is optional and open to anyone interested in ballooning. Participants need not be festival volunteers to attend.
For more information on volunteering or to get involved, visit www.tigardballoon.org/volunteers.