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Eight hot air balloons will grace the Crook County skies this week, and the community is invited to get a closer look

CENTRAL OREGONIAN FILE PHOTO - Eight hot air balloons will come to Prineville for the Sixth Annual Freedom Aloft Balloon Rally July 5-7.

Greg Miller says people can't help but smile and wave when they see a big hot air balloon floating in the skies overhead.

"Every one of the balloonists will tell you the same thing — it's the joy and the happiness that we bring when we do this," he says of flying.

Miller, of I'll Fly Away Balloon Adventures, is hosting the Sixth Annual Freedom Aloft Balloon Rally Friday through Sunday, July 5-7 at Stryker Park and Ochoco Creek Park in downtown Prineville, where eight hot air balloons from the Pacific Northwest will gather.

But before the balloons grace the Crook County skies, Miller wants the locals to understand how hot air balloons work.

All of the hot air balloon pilots coming to the rally are insured, are commercial pilots, have a pilot's license, and have gone through a rigorous Federal Aviation Administration training.

"Hot air balloons launch from city parks and airports and schools, and we go where the wind goes," he said. "You're strictly going with the wind. You can't steer it. You don't have a motor."

The only thing balloon pilots can do is change their altitude and go up or down to change with whatever the wind is doing at different altitudes.

Balloon pilots do not fly if the winds are more than about 7 miles an hour on the surface. They can, however, be in winds up to 20 miles an hour above 1,000 feet. Flying in heavier winds increases the possibility of having an unsafe landing.

"We always try to find a suitable place to land that's safe for not only the pilot and the passengers and the equipment but the landowners' property," Miller said.

Once pilots get to an elevation where they can start seeing the lay of the land, they start picking out three sites to land, one to the left, one in the middle, and one in the right. If the wind changes, then they pick out a new site to make up for the one that they lost.

They try to land on public land, but sometimes it is necessary to land on private property. If they do need to land on private land, they always try to get permission.

"We are very respectful of people's property for crops or if they have horses or cattle," Miller said, noting that they use whisper burners that put out a lower emission of noise so they don't scare the horses. "We really try to have it be a win-win pleasant situation for everybody."

A chase crew follows each balloon, and the pilot stays in contact with the crew by radio. They coordinate the landing site, and if it's private property, the chase crew gets permission from the landowner. The chase crew then helps with the landing, deflating and transport.

The Freedom Aloft Balloon Rally begins bright and early Friday morning. At 5:30 a.m., the eight balloon owners will start the layout and setup of the balloons in Stryker and Ochoco Creek parks.

In order to keep the rally a free event for the community, they have several business sponsors.

Three of the balloons, weather pending, will offer free tether flights from 7 to 9 a.m. A tether flight is where the balloons are tied off to vehicles and rise 35 to 50 feet above the ground, then come back to the ground and another group is loaded into the balloon.

"Each tether flight lasts from three to five minutes and will give the rider a chance for excellent photo opportunities and will give the rider a taste of the experience of floating in a hot air balloon," Miller said.

The Friday morning tether flights are for anyone who is able to board the aircraft and can stand on their own for the duration of the flight. Tethered flights are on a first-come-first-served basis. Those interested must check in at the tether tent. Tethers are weather dependent and may or may not occur or may end early if the winds are blowing or it is raining.

"Paying it forward for the community, several first responders will be treated to a balloon flight on Friday morning, July 5," Miller said. "The public can come watch as five balloons take flight over Prineville and Crook County."

On Friday evening after the singing of the National Anthem, the balloonists will start preparations for the Night Glow Illumination Show at Stryker Park. Around 9 p.m., five balloons will participate in the 30-minute show.

"We illuminate them to music, and they're like giant lanterns," Miller said of the hot air balloons. "We have about six things that we do."

The balloons light up to the sound of the music for introductions, they pop popcorn and do the wave.

Smoking and fireworks are not allowed around the balloons, and pets are not allowed on the field. Miller said the high-pitched noise of the burners can scare pets.

On the mornings of Saturday, July 6 and Sunday, July 7, all eight balloons will begin the layout and inflation of the balloons at 5:30 a.m. for a launch time around 6 a.m. Passengers will be the crew members and VIP sponsors of the event.

Miller encourages everyone to come down to the park to see and photograph the colorful balloons.

"There just so majestic and beautiful, and they can come down and see them take off in the morning and get up close," he said.


Sixth Annual Freedom Aloft Balloon Rally

Dates: Friday-Sunday, July 5-7

Location: Stryker Park and Ochoco Creek Park

Free tether rides: 7-9 a.m. Friday

Night Glow: 9 p.m. Friday

To volunteer, call Greg Miller, 503-510-7835.

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