Tigard Festival of Balloons gets an early start at local elementary school

Students at Mary Woodward Elementary school last month got an up-close, personal sneak preview of the upcoming Tigard Festival of Balloons courtesy of hometown pilot Cheryl Isaacs and a few of her fellow flyers.

In true Oregon fashion, questionable weather kept the team from fully inflating La Brisa Del Mar – Isaacs’ bright patchwork balloon – but that didn’t quiet the excitement screeching up into the morning as the fabric began billowing to life, waves roiling the purple, yellow and green fabric as it took on air.

“Watching a hot-air balloon is so magical, and it’s just fantastic that these kids get to see it in real life,” 4th-grade teacher Allison Hutchins said. “We really appreciate that they come and do this for us.”

The demonstration, part of a kindergarten class study on transportation, was arranged by parent Kristin Romelhardt, whose younger daughter presented hot-air balloons as her homework project.

Romelhardt, who is also the festival’s program director, set up a previous demonstration at the school two years ago for her older daughter’s class.

 “It started because March 2020 was transportation month for Mrs. (Shelly) Orchard’s kindergarten class, and I thought, well, balloons are a form of transportation, and I have connections,” she said.

She knew just the woman for the job.

“We arranged it with our pilot Cheryl Issacs, and this is nothing new to her. She’s done them in the past,” she said.

Issacs, who has been sailing the sky for more than two decades, loves bringing La Brisa Del Mar to life in schoolyard programs like this, partly because of the excitement it generates in the kids.

Hot-air Balloon pilot Cheryl Isaacs, of Tigard, tells students what to expect before beginning to inflate her balloon for them.
Hot-air Balloon pilot Cheryl Isaacs, of Tigard, tells students what to expect before beginning to inflate her balloon for them, while Tigard Festival of Balloons Production Director Kristin Romelhardt, crew member Edie Stoaks, and festival Executive Director Cindy Murphy look on. Mike Antonelli/Tigard Life

Her hobby is populated largely by retirees with resources to bankroll it, but the future of ballooning depends on exposing a new generation early.

“You don’t necessarily see younger pilots,” Romelhardt said. “So many stories we hear are that pilots started because of a connection when they were younger. They crewed when they were younger, and the next thing you know, a year later, they’re going for their pilot’s license. To bring this to kids at a young age, you never know what it might create when they get older.”

Both of her daughters already balloon.

“The first time I went up, I was a little scared,” kindergartner Megan Romelhardt said.

But the view is worth it.

“People on the ground look as tiny as flowers,” she said.

And sharing with it her whole school was a fun homework assignment.

Students take turns touching the fabric of Cheryl Isaacs partially inflated hot-air Balloon.
Students take turns touching the fabric of Cheryl Isaacs partially inflated hot-air Balloon, La Brisa Del Mar, during a demonstration at Mary Woodward Elementary School. Isaacs will sail it later this month at the Tigard Festival of Balloons.

Isaacs brings the kids in close during demonstrations, letting them touch the inflated balloon. After it’s deflated, she gathers older classes around the flattened fabric to help her roll it back up so it can be packed and stored for the next outing.

When the conditions are ideal, she’ll lift the balloon and basket about 10 feet above her young audience. But the wind was too much for flying at the Woodward.

“We’re going to get the balloon inflated,” she told the students and teachers lined up along either side of it. “We’re not going to stand it up, but we’re going to fill it up with air and then you might be able to touch it too. This fabric is very, very easy to tear, so don’t step on it. If we let you come on up, you can touch it with your hands.”

La Brisa Del Mar is a sports balloon big enough to carry three people including the pilot, perfect for rallies like Tigard’s. Huge as it looks, even partially filled, it’s substantially smaller than the variety used for flying large passenger gondolas.

“It’s going to be very noisy,” she warns the kids before firing up the burners and fans and blowing hot air into the mouth of the balloon.

A few cover their ears, but the excitement of seeing it grow quickly overtakes the field. No one seems to care that the balloon won’t leave the ground or that after multiple rainouts and reschedules, the kindergarten transportation unit finished weeks earlier.

They’re just plain excited.

Romelhardt and Executive Director Cindy Murphy hope to spread that excitement to more schools in coming years and introduce students to ballooning in conjunction with the festival, which returns to Cook Park this month with a financial boost from the City of Tigard to assist in its relaunch after a two-year Covid hiatus.

The Tigard city council allocated 65K in transient lodging tax monies to help the three-day rally restart after the cancelation losses threatened to ground it.

“Whether it’s related to science or transportation, what we’d love to be able to do is bring it to other schools in the area, creating an educational program in the Spring,” Romelhardt said.