I liked writing this so much that I felt like I had to reprint it here. It was originally posted at Traveling Nevada.
Every year since 1982 Reno has awoken to find hot air balloons dotting the sky above the city in early September. The annual event has become a big part of the late-Summer scene in Reno. I remember seeing handmade posters all over the dorms when I started college in the early 90s that advertised groups of people waking up early and walking to Ranch San Rafael Park for Dawn Patrol. I’ve made the trip to the park a couple of times to catch Dawn Patrol, an early morning event in which the light of the flames illuminates the balloons against the still-dark sky, and it’s a pretty cool sight to see.
About six years ago I got the opportunity to go up in a balloon. On this particular day, each balloon team was to go to a different part of the city—a park or a school—and launch from there. It was a way to connect with local kids and allow them to both see how ballooning works and spread the balloons throughout the city to keep everyone aware that the Race was in town. As we set up, the call came that the weather was too breezy for it to be safe and balloons were to stay grounded. The pilot ignored the order (maybe it was a suggestion?) and we went up anyway.
The result was that we landed about four miles north of our original position. To top it off, where we landed (now a large shopping center in Spanish Springs) was a relatively remote field with cows. We got to the point that we didn’t have enough propane to power the balloon to get to a road, and someone had to jump out to lighten the load a bit. That was me. I got out and the balloon immediately left the ground again and started floating away. I chased after it so as not to be left in the muddy, very muddy field while the chase crew took care of the balloon passengers. I only fell down in the mud a couple of times. The person I was there with, a guy named Ethan, was videotaping for the TV station where we worked, and he didn’t miss a thing. I’m pretty sure the tape still exists today with me chasing the balloon and falling down trying to keep up.
With that experience safely behind me, I was finally able to make the trip back up to Ranch San Rafael and try going up in a balloon again. Thanks to an invitation from organizers to check it out and take some photos, I was officially going back up. This time, it was an entirely different venture.
My pilot, Diane Karlsson of Chandler, Texas, was awesome. Diane, her friend Wanda, and I spent about 45 minutes in the air over the park and the northern part of Reno. Diane and her crew made it pretty clear that nobody gets a free ride in their balloon, so I was employed for a bit as part of the team. While the balloon was inflated my job was to hold the mouth of it open. Luckily, it’s an easy job and I could do it while snapping photos of the inside of the 110,000 cubic foot, Texas-esque (in both size and color) craft. When the time came to heat up the air, I had to turn off the gas-powered fan and move it out of the way.
Once the fan is off, there isn’t much time to act. The balloon is ready to go. So, I hopped in, waited for the third passenger, and off we were.
The most amazing thing to me about riding in the balloon is how quickly upon launch the view changes. Just a few feet off the ground makes everything look different. I could now see the shape of the mountains against the valley floor and almost immediately I was looking at the tops of other balloons readying themselves for flight. We were one of the first few in the air so we had it all to ourselves for a few minutes.
It was a thrill watching her guide the balloon and keep us from drifting away from the area like a few other balloons did. One of the rules in flight is that the balloon on the bottom has the right of way. That’s because the bottom balloon can’t see what’s above itself, but the top balloon can see what’s below. With this in mind, we had to navigate around several of the later-launching balloons to avoid any mishaps. Diane did that skillfully while also using the paths of other balloons to guide her in the correct altitudes to keep the balloon moving in the right direction. The mountains surrounding Reno coupled with the rising sun sets the winds in motion, meaning that different altitudes might have strikingly different wind direction.
Setting down in the park was interesting. Winds shifted on us a bit and we began going north when we should have gone west. It landed us in a marshy area near a footbridge. Runners passing by on the bridge were unable to hold onto the balloon and we drifted another ten feet onto some rocks. From there I got out and helped the crew pull the balloon back tot he grass where it was landed and put away. Here we were in the midst of several other aircraft, but the space allowed to us was generous and the team packed up tidily in just a few minutes.
This time I’ll have really fond memories of my trip up in a hot air balloon. I was able to ride along with a really cool crew of people and was treated very well by a professional team. Watching Diane maneuver the balloon among all the others and mostly have success in keeping us where the best views were was awesome. And I didn’t get a speck of mud on myself this time.