7 minute read

Flying with the Female Pilots of Vista Balloon Adventures

'Sensation Incomparable'

Flying with the female pilots of Vista Balloon Adventures

written by Valerie Estelle Rogers

photography by Gwen Shoemaker

THE SUN is beginning to peak over the horizon and darkness shifts from a silky ink to soft hints ofpink light. A touch of dew is on the ground and a crispness in the air requires light jackets. The vans, each pulling a trailer, follow in line as though in a parade. One by one they spread out across the field, each holding hot air balloons ready to be unfurled and set up by volunteer crew. A group of pilots begins their checklist set-up routines. Magic awaits.

Hot air balloon views of the Willamette Valley on an overcast early morning.

Hot air balloon views of the Willamette Valley on an overcast early morning.

Gwen Shoemaker

Hot air ballooning, often called the first form of human flight, dates back to 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers flew over Versailles, France. Around the same time, ballooning pioneer Jean-Pierre-François Blanchard died, leaving his wife, Sophie Blanchard, to take over the family ballooning business, thus earning her the title of the world’s first recognized female balloon pilot in 1804.

Widespread interest surged at the turn of the century and the ballooning industry grew, with thousands of spectators inspired by novelty and curiosity. That interest faded until the 1960s, when a resurgence of interest grew due to modernizing modifications such as adding a stationary propane burner to the basket, as well as advancements in fabric, stitching and nautical design. Interestingly, however, the basket has stayed essentially the same as it was in the 1700s—a woven wicker rectangular basket, sometimes referred to as a gondola. Today, as in the past, hot air ballooning continues to be as unique and intriguing to the onlooker, the passengers and the pilots.

Three members of the Vista Balloon Adventures fleet fly near the Willamette River.

Three members of the Vista Balloon Adventures fleet fly near the Willamette River.

Gwen Shoemaker

Vista Balloon Adventures in Newberg, operating since 1989, carries on the legacy of those first flights in the 1700s. Ashley Whittey and Pierre Campana-Jourda purchased Vista from original owners Roger and Catherine Anderson six seasons ago, and they recognize the relationship between past and present. Like the French, Vista has a traditional champagne toast upon completion of each flight, along with a social brunch. Continuing Sophie Blanchard’s legacy, half of Vista’s pilots are female, a far cry from the industry average of 15 percent.

“Sensation incomparable” is how Blanchard described being in a hot air balloon so long ago. It’s the same for Vista’s female pilots—Kelly Haverkate, Cheryl Isaacs, Andrea McEvoy, Carmen Blakely and Kelly Dorius. With a combined total seventy years of experience, these five women make up a significant part of Vista Balloon Adventures’ team, both as full-time and on-call pilots.

Hot air balloon pilots, from left, Kelly Dorius, Kelly Haverkate and Andrea McEvoy before a morning departure.

Hot air balloon pilots, from left, Kelly Dorius, Kelly Haverkate and Andrea McEvoy before a morning departure.

Gwen Shoemaker

Flying a commercial hot air balloon is no easy feat. To fly passengers in a balloon you must have a Federal Aviation Administration-issued pilot’s license, also known as an airman’s certificate, just as you would for an airplane or any other aircraft. There are three steps to acquiring a pilot’s license. The first is to pass a written exam in these subjects: aviation law, navigation, meteorology, balloon systems and human performance. Following the written exam, you must pass an oral exam. Then you have to spend thirty-five hours in the air, including ten flights—two solo—and a controlled ascent to 3,000 feet and final approval from a designated FAA flight examiner.

Carmen Blakely and Cheryl Isaacs have twenty-four and twenty years’ experience, respectively, and, at 73 and 65 years old, are the matriarchs of Vista Balloon Adventures’ female pilots. Blakely knew when she was 6 years old that she wanted to fly in a balloon, and once she did, she knew immediately she wanted to pilot one. As she grew older, the only place for a woman in aviation was as a flight attendant, so she became one—all the while still yearning for the freedom of flying an aircraft. Meanwhile, in the 1980s, Isaacs took her first ride in a hot air balloon and fell instantly in love with the beauty. So inspired, Blakey, Isaacs, and a third friend formed a study group and spent hours preparing for the tests and undergoing on-site training from Roger Anderson, then-owner of Vista. Decades later, they have each flown thousands of passengers, viewed many marriage proposals in the sky, and helped dreams come true.

Haverkate first saw hot air balloons floating over East Burnside early on a Sunday morning in Portland. Inspired by the sight, she woke her then-young children early, packed the strollers into the car and headed out to watch the Rose Festival. She was intrigued by the “puzzle” involved in flying, maneuvering and landing. So inspired, Haverkate called a balloon company listed in the Yellow Pages and talked in great detail with the owner about how she might get involved. The owner suggested volunteering as a crew member would be a great start to understanding the world of hot air ballooning. Haverkate’s kids were little at the time, so she placed her dream on the shelf.

Pilot Kelly Haverkate tests the burner before liftoff.

Pilot Kelly Haverkate tests the burner before liftoff.

Gwen Shoemaker

Several years later, she moved west of Portland and caught glimpses of balloons floating over the morning sky. Again, she picked up the phone, and one call later she was on the official volunteer crew list for Vista Balloon Adventures. To her great surprise, the man she’d spoken to all those years ago was Anderson, then-owner of the company. It wasn’t long before Haverkate was carrying her balloon flying handbook to her kids’ basketball, soccer, and T-ball games, preparing to take her pilot’s exam. Twenty-four years later, at age 59, she still loves solving the hot air balloon puzzle in the air each morning.

McEvoy and Dorius are the next generation of pilots, carrying the propane torches forward. McEvoy had volunteered as a crew member for five years when she decided it was time to get her license. Inspired by Haverkate and Isaacs, McEvoy was soon training, flying and licensed to fly passengers. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget the butterflies and the sense of accomplishment after my first solo flight,” McEvoy said, now with five years under her belt as a pilot.

Kelly Dorius helps with deflation and packing up ropes after a flight.

Kelly Dorius helps with deflation and packing up ropes after a flight.

Gwen Shoemaker

Dorius, often on the field at the same time as McEvoy, is the newest female to the roster with just under three years as a pilot. A few years ago, after volunteering to crew for a short while, Dorius was approached by Vista’s owners, who inquired if she would be interested in becoming a pilot. It took just three weeks before she was on her first training flight and two years to become officially licensed. At 31, Dorius said, this has definitely been one of her greatest life accomplishments.

Most flights happen at the break of dawn, and depending on the time of the year, you may arrive at the launch site in the dark, which in turn will allow you to watch the sunrise just as you prepare to take off. The ascent is silent, except for the sound of the propane flames pushing hot air into the balloon in small thrusts. It is a rush to see the ground give way and to watch as the crew standing below becomes smaller and smaller. It’s at this time, you realize, you are at the treetops, and your brain has to reconcile that you are on the very top of the tree line, and yet you are continuing to go higher and higher and you are now sharing space with the birds. There is no sound of the wind, no sound of anything, just stillness.

Passengers, the ground crew and pilot arrive at the launch site to set up balloons.

Passengers, the ground crew and pilot arrive at the launch site to set up balloons.

Gwen Shoemaker

The scene changes quickly; unpacked balloons are inflated and inspected as they get ready for flight.

The scene changes quickly; unpacked balloons are inflated and inspected as they get ready for flight.

Gwen Shoemaker

While in flight, Kelly Haverkate works the vent line to let out air.

While in flight, Kelly Haverkate works the vent line to let out air.

Gwen Shoemaker

After landing, the balloon “envelope” is packed into the bag and tied up before loading it into the chase vehicle.

After landing, the balloon “envelope” is packed into the bag and tied up before loading it into the chase vehicle.

Gwen Shoemaker

The ground crew and passengers load the basket into the chase vehicle.

The ground crew and passengers load the basket into the chase vehicle.

Gwen Shoemaker

From Blanchard in 1804 to these five pilots in 2020, all have shared the “sensation incomparable” through hot air ballooning. Vista Balloon Adventures is busy fulfilling bucket-list dreams one at a time, and not always for the passengers—sometimes the pilot’s dreams come true too. Vista launches approximately 300 flights and 2,000 passengers each season.

“Once you leave the ground, it is nothing like you expect,” Isaacs said. “The liftoff is gentle and the feeling of freedom just takes over. The beauty of all the fields, buildings, trees, everything, from an open basket is absolutely beautiful.” Everyone, Blakely agreed, should try it just once.