There’s something otherworldly about hot air balloons. Their majestic size and colors, the whooshing sound of the propane burners, then the utter silence as they cruise above the earth. Just a few weeks from now, you can take in this elegant spectacle yourself at The Great Prosser Balloon Rally, which runs from Sept. 27-29.
This is the 30th annual balloon fest, which can draw as many as 10,000 people over the course of the event. Most of the pilots are from the Northwest, but entrants have come from as far away as Minnesota and California.
Hot air balloons predate airplanes by more than a century. The first successful hot air balloon flight with people on board was in Paris in 1793, while Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first successful airplane flight didn’t happen until 1903. Obviously, airplanes are a more effective way to get around, but hot air balloons are much more romantic. And once you’ve ridden in one, it’s hard to break their spell.
Morgan Everett is co-chair of the event and serves on the Prosser City Council. He’s been involved in the balloon rally for 10 years but has loved hot air balloons since he was a kid. He grew up in Prosser and has flown several times himself.
“It’s a majestic experience,” he said. “A once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s quiet, calm and peaceful. When you’re up there you’re floating blissfully above the city of Prosser, above the river, looking out for miles.”
He passed his love of balloons to his daughter, who has watched them fly since she was little.
“It’s a great family event,” he said.
On Saturday, there’s a 45-minute “Night Glow” event at Art Fiker stadium. They turn off all the stadium lights and the balloons are illuminated from inside by the glow of their burners as they float across the sky. A Harvest Festival runs all three days. The city closes off four blocks downtown for chalk art street painting, live music, food vendors, and arts and crafts booths.
Some balloons do a “splash and dash,” gently touching down on the surface of the Yakima River, then rising back up. A few lucky spectators are asked to assist the balloon pilots as they inflate, chase and recover the balloons, but there are no balloon rides for the general public, though one balloon ride is offered Sunday morning to the winner of a raffle.
So how do hot air balloons work? They’re really quite simple, with three parts: The envelope, the burner and the basket. The envelope is made of fire-resistant ripstop nylon. There are 24 vertical sections, stitched and held together by heavy-duty load tape, a material similar to the seat belts in your car. There’s a vent in the top with a rip line the pilot pulls when landing to deflate the balloon quickly. Another opening in the top allows pilots to vent hot air to control the ascent and descent.
The baskets are usually made of wicker, which floats (and could come in handy for a splash and dash gone awry). Morgan says the baskets often carry two or three people, but he’s seen larger ones that can handle up to 10 people. Some deluxe baskets have built-in banquette seats and insulated champagne holders.
The burners are what make that loud whooshing sound. They run on propane and send out a flame that’s 6 to 8 feet long. Handlers start with the envelope laid out on the ground and the basket tipped over on its side. They lay out the straps and stainless steel lines connecting the balloon to the basket and the pilot stands inside the opening, a safe distance from the flame, to hold it open while hot air flows inside. It doesn’t take long to fill up and gently lift the basket upright.
The temperature of the air determines how high it goes, how quickly it lifts off, and how much weight it can carry, because the air inside the balloon must be hotter than the outside air to lift it. But when everything comes together, it’s a beautiful thing.
The Albuquerque International Balloon Fest in October runs nine days and is the biggest event of its kind in the nation. Prosser’s is smaller, with 20 to 30 balloons, but enchanting in its own right. Even more impressive is the fact that the people who put it together are all volunteers, working throughout the year to bring this airborne magic to the Yakima Valley.