Hot air balloons return (momentarily) to Walla Walla skies

Ben Kearney, News Reporter

Hot air balloon between Stanton and Anderson. Photo by Liam McLaughlin.

The 46th Walla Walla Balloon Stampede was planned to run Oct. 19–23. Due to unfortunate weather conditions, the event was canceled halfway through. Despite the abrupt ending, attendees enjoyed the trademark Walla Walla tradition.

Head Cross Country Coach Scott Shields attended his first Balloon Stampede in 1975, the second one ever to be held in Walla Walla. Shields holds the event very close to his heart.

“[I associate the event with] friends, family, the support of the Walla Walla community and flying in a place that is beautiful to fly over,” Shields says. “Hot air ballooning is a unique sport requiring very specific skills and qualifications. The community shares in this oldest of flying skills. The Stampede is the longest running balloon event in the Northwest and one of the longest running ones in the country.”

Laurie Spencer, the event producer, has been a part of the festivities for 25 years. Spencer believes the hot air balloon community is quite different from most other types of communities. 

“I became a part of the Balloon Stampede when I was invited to fly here,” Spencer said. “The balloon community is spread out across the world, yet we are a close knit family.”

Shields grew up in Walla Walla, and his brother first introduced him to the ballooning business.

“My brother Jeff ‘Kong’ Shields brought me into ballooning. I crewed for and was trained to fly by Bill Lloyd, one of the founders of the Stampede,” Shields said. “Bill Lloyd asked me to help out with the Stampede starting with the 1975 event. I have participated in almost all of the Walla Walla Balloon Stampedes since then.”

Shari Gale is a member of the Knight-N-Gale balloon team in Albany, Oregon. Alongside her husband Tim Gale, she has been a part of the Stampede since 1979. 

“Our first experience was in 1979,” Gale said. “The following year, 1980, we purchased a new balloon, and rally organizer Bill Lloyd let us enter the rally even though we were new to the sport. We’ve been there every year since, [except for] one — my husband had to work that weekend. We never let that happen again!”

Gale says balloon pilots have a different set of regulations compared to other aviary transportation. 

“Hot air balloon pilots have strict Federal Aviation regulations to follow,” Gale said. “They have to comply with those rules, as they should for safety reasons. Pilots need to be professional and factor in safety in all their decisions. This is not a frivolous activity. Some members of the public only see the beauty and excitement, but that cannot be the deciding factor in the ‘fly or no fly’ decisions.”

Despite the partial weather cancellation this year, Gale says the Walla Walla community is always supportive of pilots and the Stampede.

“The support the community gives to this event is phenomenal,” Gale said. “I remember once when the rally was held in the spring, we could not fly at all due to the weather. Tim and I drove back to Walla Walla a few weeks later in order to fly. As I was chasing my balloon through the streets of town, I had people go out of their way to run over to the chase van to say, ‘Thanks for coming!’ I doubt that would happen in any other town in this country.”

Spencer says she’s grateful to be part of such a large event that continues to return to the Walla Walla area, and she is grateful to those who travel for the event.

“The best part of the Stampede, apart from the flying, is the people I get to meet,” Spencer said. “I’m blessed in being able to help people make memories that they carry with them [for] a lifetime.”

For future information, you can follow the Walla Walla Balloon Stampede on Facebook