It is 6 a.m. on a cool September morning and groups of people are huddling around in the dark at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno. Right as the sun starts to creep up over the Reno-Sparks area, two hot air balloons (one of them hanging an American flag) launches into the air as people quiet for the National Anthem.
I meet the crew over at the Great Basin Internet Services hot air balloon, a friendly group that is busy blowing it up to get it into the air while it’s still cool outside. Two big fans powered by Honda GX240 engines are blowing cold air insulation into the multi-colored balloon to get it to full size holding 105,000 cubic feet of air. As it inflates, the crew holds all sides of the basket. Keeping it steady, pilot Bob Raper and lucky participants jump in and Raper starts pumping hot air into it so that we can lift off. With the pilot, three people, and two propane tanks in the basket, the balloon gracefully lifts into the sky offering incredible aerial views of the Reno-Sparks area.
Around 40 other balloons are around us, all gliding around Rancho San Rafael Park and hovering 500-1000 feet above ground. It is dead quiet up in the air except for the occasional soothing sound of the propane keeping our balloon afloat. Our pilot owns several balloons and has been flying for 12 years, using around 20 gallons of propane every time he flies (and carries about 52). The colder the air temperature the better as pilots use less gas, which is why you usually see hot air balloons launch early in the morning. Raper says that his best flight was in Wyoming when the air temperature was only five degrees Fahrenheit and the balloon didn’t get above 90 degrees. “We only used two tanks of gas,” he says. Currently hovering above the streets of Reno, the temperature of our balloon is between 156-170 degrees.
After being up in the air for about an hour and a half, we try to pick out a spot to land. We are searching for a spot that’s fairly accessible to get picked up- flat and away from power lines and the mountainside. Raper says that good pilots can get within 25 feet of their landing targets, which is how big balloon races are judged- by how close they can drop a bean bag to the target on the field. We see one balloon land in a neighborhood blocking a school bus from going through, but free from streetlights and anything where the fabric could get hung up.
Successfully landing in a sagebrush field, our crew drives over to us and we all work together on wrapping the balloon up and getting everything loaded into the truck. By 9:30 a.m., we’re back at Rancho San Rafael Park.
More than 100,000 people attend the Great Reno Balloon Race year after year. Now in its 37th season, the Great Reno Balloon Race features more than 100 balloons and is a favorite free Northern Nevada event. This year’s 3-day event featured the Super Glow Show, Dawn Patrol and Mass Ascension, plus specially-shaped balloons such as Smokey Bear, Sushi the flying fish, and Pea-Nut the elephant.