Willamette Aerostat Society works to Inspire Future Hot Air Balloonists

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Sallie Loflin’s balloon Emerald above the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival. Loflin and her husband, Jack, are among the younger balloonists at the Tigard Festival of Balloons. As president of the Willamette Aerostat Society, she’s working to ignite interest in a new generation as many aging pilots eye retirement. Photo courtesy of Sallie Loflin
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Sallie Loflin is on a mission.

The President of Willamette Aerostat Society and fellow hot air ballooning club members are working to inspire young future flyers and ensure the past time they love keeps soaring as many long-time pilots begin to eye retirement.

“My goal is to try and get kids interested in the sport and the hobby to see if we can’t continue the traditions that have been going on forever before they completely disappear,” she said.

She and others from the WAS will be on hand throughout the Tigard Festival of Balloons, drumming up excitement at a booth staffed by pilots and crew, and raising money to help fund youth balloon camp scholarships. 

Jack and Sallie Loflin relaxing pre-flight. Photo courtesy of Joy Sibayan

The locally based club has about 60 members from as far away as South Dakota, though most live in Oregon and SW Washington.

The festival, which returns to Cook Park June 23-25 with about 20 balloons and a packed weekend of dawn-to-dark entertainment and activities, features early morning flights, tethered rides, and balloon night glows.

Though the sport’s vitals are still strong – the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta continues to attract about 500 pilots from around the world every fall – Loflin’s concerns about the future of ballooning are shared by many.

It’s no secret this tight-knit group of enthusiasts is aging. Many are in their 60s and 70s, and many have been ballooning for decades. As they retire, the sport is shrinking through attrition.

“It’s not like we have a bunch of 18-year-olds who are doing this. It’s just too expensive for them to get into,” she said. “If we can even get one person out of the spectators at this festival who’s interested in becoming a pilot, then we’ve been extremely successful.”

Like airplane pilots, balloon pilots are licensed by the FFA. But rental balloons are harder to come by than rental airplanes, meaning to get flying time, pilots need a balloon and chase vehicle of their own. 

A new set-up costs about $30,000 or $10-15,000 for a used system – chase vehicle not included. 

“It’s a lot for somebody to get involved,” Loflin said. “I’m hoping that I can change that one of these days. I’d like to get another balloon that I can rent out to people so they can start their flight instruction and find out whether flying is for them before they go purchase an expensive balloon.”

At 42, Loflin’s husband Jack will be one of the younger pilots at the Tigard Festival this year. 

Long time pilots and past presidents of the Willamette Aerostat Society Shari and Tim Gale have been ballooning for more than four decades. Shari continues to write the WAS newsletter. Tim is an instructor. Photo courtesy of Shari and Tim Gale

Veteran pilots and past WAS presidents Shari and Tim Gale launched their first balloon in 1980, the same year Jack Loflin was born.

“We went out and got involved and never looked back,” Shari said, admitting she was afraid of heights initially.

Those fears have long since subsided, and in their place, she has a huge ballooning family, some of whom the Gales crossed the Atlantic to fly balloons in France. Four decades into flying, Shari is optimistic the ballooning will survive the obstacles.

She sees long time pilots now flying at rallies with their grown children and generational excitement in kids like her 10-year-old granddaughter, who is growing up with the sport.

“She dives right in, and everyone reaches out and mentors her,” she said.

Gales’ adventures have carried her around the world, and even once into the air with a descendant of one of the French Montgolfier brothers who invented the first hot air balloon in 1783. The woman was an international student from Paris working on a graduate degree and had never ridden in a balloon.

It’s those experiences and the tight community that keep Gale enamored with ballooning.

“I have a theory: negative people won’t get up that early in the morning, so we meet a lot of really fun people,” she said, referring to the sunrise launch window. “As somebody said this weekend, you get out there in the field, and it’s all family, and there’s no biological connection to them, but they are family.”

And, the Gales, along with some of that close community, were drifting the skies above Walla Walla 30 years ago when a very young Sallie Loflin watched the ground.

Loflin agrees kids like her, who grow up going to rallies, are the future.

The organizers hope these up-close balloon moments kids get at family festivals like the Tigard Festival of Balloons bring a few back with their own balloons as adults.

To learn more about the Willamette Aerostat Society, visit their booth at the Tigard Festival of Balloons, or visit wasballoon.org.