Albany Balloonmeister takes DIY to soaring heights in home-built craft

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Chris and Lisa Whitfield (left), and another pilot ready Heaven Bound Too from the inside during a pre-flight inflation. Photo Courtesy of Chris Whitfield
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The signature purple cross on the side of Chris Whitfield’s brightly colored Heaven Bound is a familiar sight to Tigard Festival of Balloon goers.

Hundreds have taken tethered rides here with Whitfield over the past decade, but there’s something extra special about the balloon they may not know.

Whitfield made it himself.

The long-time pilot Albany balloonmeister belongs to a niche within a niche, a tiny subset of hot air balloon pilots who quite literally take DIY to new heights in balloons they’ve spent hundreds of hours constructing by hand.

“It’s like building a really, really large quilt, only the fabric is slippery, and it’s big enough to cover your entire house,” he said.  

Heaven Bound was the first of three balloons that the long-time pilot built. His newest, Heaven Bound Too, debuts in Tigard this month. He spent the winter and spring measuring, cutting, organizing, and sewing fabric for his newest balloon, which will be festival-ready this month.

The meticulous process takes exacting measurements and sharp organizational skills. Because Whitfield sews in a spare bedroom of his Albany home and only sees a few panels at a time as he works, he relies on his careful labeling to ensure each piece is attached in the right place.

Though the process is time-consuming—Whitfield’s first balloon took three months, and the new one five—the effort saves thousands of dollars. Heaven Bound Too cost about $6,000 to make, and he estimates a comparable factory-built model would have cost him about $20,000.

The enormous difference was the motivation to make a balloon in 2011.

At the time, Whitfield had never sewn. He’d recently bought his second balloon, and when it turned out to be a past-its-prime, unflightworthy lemon, he couldn’t afford to replace it. 

Instead, he got an industrial sewing machine, and with a good bit of guidance from veteran ballooners Marianne and Bob LeDoux, he set to work creating spreadsheets, planning the pattern, and calculating measurements. The LeDouxs are the only other Oregonians he knows of who build their own balloons.

“We cut out 252 pieces and started sewing them together one by one,” he said. “We did it in just over three months, really fast.  We started in March (2011), and we wanted to fly it in Tigard in June.”  

Balloon set-ups are fairly simple: The envelope—that’s balloon speak for the giant patchwork of colorful material that holds the air—is attached to a gondola, the basket, that carries the pilot, passengers, and the propane tank to fuel the burners. The burners blow out a flame that heats the air, which inflates the envelope and lifts the whole contraption.

The larger the envelope, the more weight and passengers it can heft. For Whitfield, camaraderie is one of the great joys of ballooning. Between the two Heaven Bounds, he made a smaller “cloud hopper” balloon big enough to fly solo in a seat that attaches to the envelope without a basket, but he only flies it about once a season.         

“A huge part of what I enjoy about being a hot air balloon pilot is giving other people rides,” he said. “It’s really fun, especially if it’s their first ride.”

Since his first Tigard Festival of Balloons in 2011, Whitfield has been part of morning flights and night glows, and for the past several Festivals, he’s spent the early morning hours taking passengers 40 feet up on short, tethered rides.

“My theory is if you fly (a longer flight with passengers), you can make two people happy for an hour, or you give tether rides that you can make 100 people happy for 5 minutes at a time. There are so many people and they just love it so much. You know by the looks on their faces.”  

He upped the envelope size and his carrying capacity with Heaven Bound Too. Its larger basket has room for four passengers (in addition to the pilot), up from two or three, which means more tether ride space throughout the weekend, weather permitting. 

Like its recently retired predecessor, the new balloon has the signature purple cross, a nod to his faith, but he says it blends into the pattern and color scheme more subtly than the first.

Some have taken solace in the purple cross sightings.

“I’ve had at least three different occasions where somebody had just recently lost a loved one, or it was the day of their funeral. They happened to see my balloon fly over town or over their house, and it meant something to them,” he said. More than once, after spotting Heaven Bound, people have reached out to a city with messages for Whitfield.

“I’ve gotten letters third hand (via city officials) from people that have really appreciated seeing my balloon at certain critical times in their life. I think that’s cool.”

2024 Tigard Festival of Balloons

When: Friday – Sunday, June 21-23
Balloons launch at 5:45 a.m. each morning (weather permitting). Festivities continue throughout the day.

Where: Cook Family Park
17005 SW 92nd Ave.
Tigard, OR 97224

Tickets: www.tigardballoon.org.
ADVANCE TICKET PURCHASE REQUIRED. $15 (+ fees), good for all 3 days. 6 and under are free. 

Fun Facts

Not originally in Tigard: The Festival began in 1983 as the Portland Hot Air Balloon Classic, hosted at Delta Park by the Rose Festival.

Beaverton’s turn: After Delta Park, the Rose Festival took the event to Beaverton from 1987 to 1992.

Tigard’s embrace: In 1993, Tigard hosted the event for the first time, welcoming over 11,000 attendees. In recent years, attendance has exceeded 20,000, providing an economic boost to the region.

Community champions: When the Rose Festival withdrew support in 1994, Tigard rallied to keep the festival going.

Fundraising Giant:  The festival has grown into a major fundraiser for local nonprofits, with over $500,000 given back to the community since moving to Tigard.

More than balloons: It’s a full-fledged festival with live music, a carnival, a car show, and a craft fair.

Early risers rewarded: The most spectacular sight is the pre-dawn launch of a dozen hot air balloons.

Night time magic: The NW Natural Night Glow, with illuminated balloons, is a major crowd-pleaser.

5K fun run: The festival even has a 5K Fun Run for the whole family to participate in.

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