Hot air balloon pilots gather in Truckee
At 6:30 a.m. Saturday morning, a lone boat with a nearby inner tube sat in the glassy water of Prosser Reservoir. The mist rising from the reservoir was a sharp contrast from the bright colors of the almost two dozen hot air balloons floating above.
The competition for the ballooners this morning was to drop a ring in the inner tube, or “target.” But in the 11 years of the annual ballooners’ campout, no one has ever done it.
The ballooners discovered the reason a few years ago. As cold air hits the water, it turns into steam, and the streams of steam usually lead in the direction of the center of the lake. Where the tube sits, however, it swirls in different directions, making it difficult for balloons to get close enough to toss the ring.
Instead, some dipped their baskets in the water and lifted back up again, some rose high above the reservoir and some drifted off in the direction of Russell Valley.
The silence on the shoreline was marred only by the periodic “whoosh” as the pilots opened the valves of the propane burners that emit a stream of fire up into the balloon. At one launch site near the dam, fans whirred to life as crews prepared yet another balloon to join the ranks of those already in flight.
But even the peace on the ground did not compare to that the pilots and their passengers enjoyed.
From their perches in the baskets, they viewed the beginning of the day from above the tree tops, their direction of travel at the mercy of the air currents-invisible forces that take a skillful pilot to master.
“I’ve had a lot of people ask me to describe [ballooning], and it’s not exactly something you can describe,” said Josh Varischetti, who piloted the Gypsy Rover III Saturday morning. “I made it about 10 minutes in my first balloon before I decided to become a pilot.”
The blasts of fire above the basket and the muffled conversations over his walky-talky occasionally interrupted his words as the balloon moved farther across the reservoir.
“Hey Gypsy, the target’s not in Boca,” a voice joked over the air.
From below, the Gypsy Rover III’s owner and regular pilot, Don “Captain” Morgan, watched, this time taking the job as one of the “chasers,” those who follow the balloon in a truck and pack it into a trailer once it lands.
Morgan is also the man responsible for starting last weekend’s campout. It began as a weekend balloon outing 11 years ago that turned into a Dutch oven cooking competition between him and a friend.
Over the years, other ballooners began coming. Through word of mouth, the event has grown to a full-fledged event. It consists of a campout with three mornings of ballooning and the Saturday evening Dutch oven cooking contest.
The event is causal, non-organized, with no sponsors or money-a nice break from the usual obligations and stresses of a regular balloon rally.
“The rules are there are no rules,” Morgan said. “(At a balloon rally) we’re kinda like the circus coming to town. We come to town, and we have to jump through hoops and perform like monkeys…There’s no hoops to jump through (this weekend). It’s all fun.”
The entire weekend is a series of contests, filled with good-natured banter of who “flies with the big dogs” versus “the puppies who stay on the porch.”
“Basically we’re flying for bragging rights,” Varischetti said.
They started Friday morning with a “long jump,” a flight to the abandoned runway in Stead. Eleven balloons made the 26-mile trip in memory of another pilot who passed away a few years ago.
Saturday was the ring toss competition, and Sunday the balloons attempted to catch a fish from their baskets, something they first accomplished only two years ago.
They launched their balloons as early as 6 a.m., because the winds are calmest in the mornings. “We’re a victim of the environment,” Morgan said.
The evenings were spent at the campground cooking, bragging of the morning’s exceptional flying feats and topping the night off with the so-called “premiere desert,” bananas foster.
“If you’re a ballooner and you come to this event, you have to cook in a Dutch oven,” Morgan said. “We’ll have almost 40 ovens.”
He started ballooning after he was “tricked” into attending the Great Reno Balloon Race. Shortly after, he looked at a balloon in Phoenix, Ariz. It took one ride to convince him to buy his own and take his first lesson. He is now licensed as a commercial balloon pilot and attends about six races a year.
It takes about five people to fly a balloon, he said. The crew unloads the 300-pound envelope, or the colored nylon part of the balloon. They attach a nylon flap on the top that serves as a vent, fill the envelope with cool air using a fan, heat it with a flame from the burner and eventually tip it upright. Usually about two people ride along, while a couple others follow on the ground.
A balloon rises when the fire heats the air inside, making it less dense than the outside air.
It’s a comfortable feeling to fly a balloon, Morgan said.
“I think most people have a fear of heights-I know I do,” he said. “In a balloon you don’t experience that. It’s a phenomenon that baffles the experts.”
The first balloon envelopes were made out of paper and silk. French paper makers noticed how the embers rose as the paper burned. They sent their first passengers – a sheep, a duck and a rooster – aloft in a balloon that was basically a paper bag.
The envelope is now nylon with a polyurethane coating to stop the airflow and resist heat. Even with the technological advances over the years, the only controls remain up and down. Pilots move within the different airflow directions at different elevations.
It’s a hobby that is addictive, Morgan said. “If nothing else, there’s good food.”