Central Oregon is vast.
Crook County, Deschutes County, and Jefferson County add up to a little more than three Delawares, or almost exactly five Rhode Islands.
But most of us have our eyes set somewhere between five and six feet off the ground. The area’s tallest buildings would be unexceptional elsewhere.
Most of the time, in the words of helicopter tour guide Patric Douglas, we live in a two-dimensional world. Seeing much more than what is immediately around us requires a trip into the third dimension, up in the air.
Big Mountain Heli
Before going into helicopter tours, Douglas was operating an entirely different kind of thrill ride, putting divers in steel cages and dropping them into shark-infested waters off Mexico’s Guadalupe Island.
After 14 years in the shark diving business, Douglas connected with Leading Edge Aviation in Bend, the flight school and charter company based at the Bend Airport. Together, they set up Big Mountain Heli Tours, focused on offering sightseeing tours and quick access to otherwise hard-to-get-to locations.
The landscape most Central Oregon residents and visitors are familiar with is not all that far off the road, Douglas said, and many once out-of-the-way places see more and more visits each year. The rest, he said, goes unseen by all but the most dedicated earthbound adventurers.
“I think all of us put together a mental map of Central Oregon in our heads, but on that map there’s a lot of empty spaces—‘here be monsters’—because we haven’t explored them.”
Speed is the obvious strong suit of helicopter travel, making it possible to take in destinations as distant as the Painted Hills and the Cowboy Dinner Tree restaurant near Silver Lake within a day. However, most passengers look for something a bit more leisurely, Douglas said, such as exploring the Newberry Caldera or flying up into the Cascades to seek out the mountains hidden behind more familiar mountains.
Just as his shark cage divers often emerged as “foaming at the mouth” shark preservationists, a helicopter ride over a burned forest, an unmanaged forest, or a clear-cut forest can be transformative, Douglas said.
“This is the kind of tourism I love because people come off the experience and they’re thrilled,” he said. “It’s not a bike tour, it’s not a walking tour, it’s something that fundamentally changes their perceptions of their vacation and the area.”
At the controls of his powered hang glider, Robert Hendrix is having a great time, chortling over the wind and the engine noise and the crackle of the radio.
The operator of Airborne Outback Adventures, Hendrix explains how FAA regulations on craft like his are less restrictive, allowing him to fly much closer to the ground than pilots in a fixed-wing plane.
“We’re going to go Luke Skywalker–style, a little Beggar’s Canyon,” he announces, before pitching downward toward the rimrock above the Deschutes River outside of Tumalo. And not unlike the Star Wars hero in his X-wing fighter, Hendrix dropped below the canyon walls, rousing the the local waterfowl as we flew low over the water.
Sometimes called trikes or microlights, a powered hang glider is a callback to some of the earliest flying machines. A lightweight fabric wing mounted on a two-passenger, three-wheeled scooter, powered by a single rear-facing prop, it needs only about a hundred yards to take flight, but tops out at around 60 mph.
Years earlier, as a hang gliding competitor, Hendrix would spend entire days in the air, traveling up to 200 miles as he picked his way from one upcurrent to the next. But the slog of hauling a hang glider to a high point only to have to pack it in to a chase vehicle to return home grew old, and maintaining a separate plane was expensive.
A powered hang glider was the natural compromise—“as close to being a bird as it gets,” Hendrix said. Maneuverable and with a nearly unobstructed 360-degree view, the powered hang glider is a popular choice with filmmakers needing aerial shots, and Hendrix’s piloting on film projects has put him on set with, among others, Nicole Kidman and Bryan Cranston.
“It’s just the absolute funnest way in the world to fly,” Hendrix said. “It’s the difference between surfing a wave and being on a boat. It’s really raw.”
Hendrix flies single passengers from the Bend Airport to Broken Top, Newberry Crater, Black Butte, almost anywhere within about an hour’s flight.
The Erickson Aircraft Collection has a smell about it. It’s well-worn metal and aged leather, fat rubber tires, and the array of lubricants and fluids that keep more than two dozen vintage warplanes ready to fly.
One of the largest private collections of military aircraft on public display, the Erickson museum is the work of Jack Erickson, an Oregonian who pioneered the use of helicopters in logging and firefighting. He relocated his collection to Madras in 2014, a nod to the airport’s history as a World War II air training center and the region’s near-limitless supply of blue sky days.
Museum manager Michelle Forster said that while there are many ways to fly in Central Oregon, the Erickson warbirds are in many cases some of the only ones of their type still flying anywhere.
“It’s not just going up in an aircraft, it’s going up in a World War II or Korean War aircraft,” she said. “You can’t get that experience anywhere else in the area.”
People with ties to those wars sometimes approach a visit to the museum and a flight in one of the planes as an emotional pilgrimage of sorts.
There was the 91-year-old woman in a bomber jacket whose family brought her over from a Hillsboro assisted-living facility so that she could take a ride on the PT-17 Stearman, an open-cockpit biplane she’d piloted decades earlier. One visitor was an Englishman born in a wartime bomb shelter, who was curious to see an example of the B-17, the plane that flew thousands of missions from English airbases to bomb Germany into submission. Another man carried with him a small insulator recovered from the site of the P-38 crash in Belgium that had killed his grandfather.
Forester recalled a woman who dropped by in March on Rosie the Riveter Day, which recognizes the women whose work in arms factories kept the Western alliance supplied through World War II. As one of those workers, the visitor was keen to see the collection’s Catalina, an amphibious plane she was once closely but only partially familiar with.
“She’d never seen the whole plane put together; she’d only ever seen the tail section she was putting together,” Forster said.
One of the museum’s most prominent planes will be absent until the fall. The Madras Maiden, a B-17 Superfortress, took off on a coast-to-coast tour in early April and will not return until November.
Big Sky Balloon
Fittingly, the beginnings of Big Sky Balloon Company hearken back to a time when Darren Kling was drifting.
Out of college and ski bumming in Vail, Kling met a balloon pilot. Their conversation led him to call up an old college friend whose balloonist parents had given Kling his first and at that time only balloon ride a few years earlier. A balloon company, Kling suggested to his friend, might be the opportunity both of them were looking for.
The idea fermented over the summer, as Kling badgered his friend and neither of them landed any more promising job. The friend’s father lent them his balloon and the two set out, wandering across the intermountain west from balloon festival to balloon festival, selling just enough rides to fund their travels until they set up shop in Kalispell.
Kling’s friend and partner eventually dropped out of the picture but Kling continued on. Following a detour to pilot a familiar corporate balloon advertising real estate, he moved to Terrebonne to relaunch his company in 2011.
Because a balloon has no controls beyond firing the burners to go up and venting hot air to go down, it mostly travels along in the air rather than moving through the air, and there’s no windchill or sense of motion as it floats along, Kling said. Pilots learn to read the landscape to locate favorable winds, and when the burners are silenced, every dog bark, slammed door, or shouted greeting from the ground is audible.
With Smith Rock just a short drift away, up to 10 major peaks from Mount Adams to Mount Bachelor visible on a clear day, and a choice of landing sites to the east, Terrebonne is a near-ideal place for ballooning, Kling said.
“I’ve flown all over the Northwest, internationally a little bit too, and Central Oregon is probably the most fun, dynamic place to fly a balloon,” he said.