At 6 a.m. on an early September weekday morning, a group of people were gathered at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park going through a pilots’ meeting. Hot air balloons from around the world were in Reno to fly above the city last weekend.
Members of the media were whisked away to different balloons and helped the aeronauts and the pilots blow up the balloon. Fortunately for me, I was partnered with the famed Darth Vader balloon, flown by Belgium pilot Benoit Lambert (his dad Michael Lambert was flying Yoda at another event).
The balloon seemed a lot bigger than some of the other hot air balloons I had been in, but when I asked Benoit the actual size, he just said “very big” (the balloon holds about 105,000 cubic feet of air). Darth had an extra sheath of mylar within the balloon for protection, and after our flight we would have to walk inside cave-like bubble to help deflate it. “Come into the dark side,” Benoit said.
Benoit does commercial flights in Belgium but only really flies Darth in the US “because people are crazy about Star Wars here,” he says. He flies Darth in Reno every other year and has more than 300 flight hours under his belt in Darth. He likes coming to Reno because of the wind- it’s easier to float in a certain direction and speed when the wind is right and then it’s up to the pilot at what altitude they want to fly at.
After the crew uses a combination of fans and heat to lift the balloon quickly, Benoit and I float up above the park amongst the other brightly colored and creative balloons. As we’re chatting, Darth snuggles up to a hot air balloon in the shape of Elvis. “Elvis loves Darth!” the ladies in The King’s basket yell. “And Darth loves Elvis!” Benoit yells back.
After a 15-minute or so ride, Darth landed and our crew pulled us back in. We jumped out and slowly start deflating Darth and bunching up his dark helmet. One of the crew members shares that he has volunteered for the Great Reno Balloon Race for a few years and that his daughter is in pilot training (she has been to the hot air balloon camp in Truckee several times). Living and working for the City of Sparks for two decades, the Great Reno Balloon Race is convenient and a nice way to get outside and spend time with family.
Wearing a ball cap that says, “don’t underestimate the power of the dark balloon”, Benoit tells a story of how he flew Darth at an event in China with a skeletal crew. It is one of the things that makes the Great Reno Balloon Race so unique and cool- that it’s a familyfriendly free event with so much volunteer work going on behind the scenes. It is actually the largest hot air balloon event in the world that is free to attend, drawing in around 125,000 people per year.
Either crewing or riding in the Darth balloon tends to be an honor, and kids usually swarm the balloon once it lands. Darth will be back again in 2021, but other favorites such as Wells Fargo stagecoach and Smokey Bear will likely be flying over Reno next September.