The Great Reno Balloon Race is the world’s largest free hot-air ballooning event. Held September 6-8, 2013, the festival attracts nearly 100 hot-air balloons.
“If you’ll hold my hand we’ll chase your dream across the sky. For we can fly we can fly. Up, up and away. My beautiful, my beautiful balloon”
When I was a kid, I loved Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, the Wizard of Oz and even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The characters were always sailing from one magical land to another by means of some fanciful form of transportation. Well, I felt like one of the characters in those books last month when I took my own thrilling ride at the Great Reno Balloon Race.
The Great Reno Balloon Race is not actually a race. It’s a points game. There are three large X’s marked in fields around the city’s outskirts. The balloon pilots try to drift close enough to drop beanbags onto the targets, or as close as possible. Each beanbag is labeled with the balloon’s ID. At the end of the event, the beanbags are tallied up to determine which balloons flew closest to the X’s.When I was a kid, I loved Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, the Wizard of Oz and even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The characters were always sailing from one magical land to another by means of some fanciful form of transportation. Well, I felt like one of the characters in those books last month when I took my own thrilling ride at the Great Reno Balloon Race.
I had to set my alarm for “freakin’ early o’clock” because festivities begin at 5 a.m. with a “Glow Show,” a choreographed presentation of brilliantly-colored hot air balloons, illuminated to movie soundtrack music from Chariots of Fire and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These same balloons then lifted off for “Dawn Patrol,” a flight of hot air balloons piloted by those who have been certified to fly in the dark.
The Great Reno Balloon Race coordinators arranged for me to experience a flight aboard a balloon piloted by Jeff Ebel, a data analyst for fighter jets at Nellis Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. So, after daybreak, I was taken to a spot in an open, grassy field, where Jeff’s air balloon and basket lay on its side, deflated. My first thought, “Oh great! My balloon’s broken!” Then I realized that all balloons start out this way.
Jeff and his crew inflated the balloon and when filled with enough hot air, the aerostat (air balloon) rose to plumb, while the crew righted the basket. From top to bottom, the craft stood 70 feet tall. What a majestic sight! I climbed in and when I looked out, was met with the breathtaking sight of mountains of colorful patterns rising around me, in every direction, as far as the eye could see! Bright billowing fabric filled the entire landscape.
Jeff used his toggle and double burners to “fire-up,” thereby raising the temperature of the air in the “envelope,” another term for balloon. With this adjustment, we lifted off the ground and made way for the sky. I felt transported back to the 18th century as the ground floated away and I waved goodbye to everyone below. I looked around and soaked in the sight of 100 other hot air balloons floating above, below, and beside us. It was surreal.
Our average rate of climb was 200 feet per minute, so in no time, we reached 2,500 feet. The night before, out of fear, I had second thoughts about dangling from a balloon half a mile in the air. I thought for sure I’d have 9-1-1 on speed dial, but no, I was thrilled in amazement!
You can’t actually steer a balloon but pilots do have some control. The burners heat the air in the envelope, which gives you vertical mobility, and by climbing and descending, you can find different wind currents that move the balloon laterally.
We intentionally climbed higher than the other balloons to find a wind current that led us away from the group. Our altitude adjustment was successful – we drifted apart from the other balloons, and headed downtown. Many of the hotels held catered pajama parties on their rooftops so guests could enjoy an early breakfast and watch the balloon races in rare style.
Floating over all the buildings was incredible — much more interesting then over the fields. Looking down at everyone seated at big round rooftop tables, I thought, “If we fall out of the sky, and land on the buffet, the waiters will still be able to ask the hotel guests if they prefer breasts or thighs. White meat or dark? Who wants the neck?”
We circled downtown a few times. I loved it but although we had plenty of fuel onboard, it was time to return to the pack, so our pilot ascended to find an ideal wind current that would bring us back to the other balloons, but to no avail.
It seemed that the wind was whipping around the buildings, pushing us in a repetitive pattern around the downtown Reno core. The only wind current we found that would take us away from the buildings would have sent us precariously towards the airport. Although we were monitoring air traffic control on the radio, our pilot Jeff did not want to get any closer to the airport runways.
Jeff spotted a vacant lot about a mile away, between the hotels and a row of tract houses. He radioed our location to his ground crew, which had been following us and were close by. They parked their cars and readied themselves beneath us. People in their hotel rooms watched us streak past, in disbelief. As we sailed over chimneys, spectators on the ground shielded their eyes from the sun as they waved hello.
As we floated down into the lot, we couldn’t afford to drift, or we would have flown into telephone poles. When we were about 30 feet up, we threw anchor lines down to the crewmembers, which then pulled us to safety in the center of the lot. Once we were hovering in a stationary position, Jeff pulled the center chute to let more hot air escape, allowing us to land gently. I was impressed. At no time during the flight did I lose confidence in Jeff. He was cool, calm and collected every step of the way and used common sense, strategy and skill to keep us safe.
Jeff’s crew worked very efficiently to deflate the balloon and fold it up. I marveled how we had just traveled in a vessel that was seven stories high but could be broken down to fit in a small trailer. So five minutes later, as quickly as bystanders witnessed us appear out of nowhere, we were packed up and gone without a trace.
Jeff and his crew have a tradition of conducting an inauguration ceremony for each passenger if it’s their first balloon ride. It consists of kneeling on the ground and repeating the verses of an old blessing about landing safely, and then unsuspectingly, having a glass of champagne poured over your head. My hair was soaked but it was worth it! I‘m now officially an aeronaut!
Copyright © Barbara Bloom/2013 Singular Communications, LLC.
Noted as one of Reno’s most colorful and spectacular events, the festival is a permanent fixture on Reno’s September skyline. Events include a Glow Show and Dawn Patrol providing an amazing spectacle as balloons glow and twinkle against the dark sky. In the unbelievable mass ascension, the skies fill with colorful balloons. A variety of foods, crafts, art and souvenirs are available. The festival is held at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park (just a few miles north of downtown Reno).