By Amy Vigen
I got my first taste of that hard work early on Thursday, September 6 at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park as pilots prepared and tested their balloons for The Great Reno Balloon Race.
As I entered the park, Sheldon Grauberger and Randy Pote greeted me. Grauberger would be my pilot, and Pote his “team.” The pair have been best friends since high school and both became interested in hot-air balloons shortly after that. I was rattled about riding in a hot-air balloon for the first time but Grauberger calmed my nerves by telling me that he had been flying balloons 19 out of the last 24 days. He is a real estate agent in Las Vegas and guides tours from a Remax balloon. Today, we were going to be flying in a balloon given to him by his piloting tutor.
As dark clouds moved and expanded overhead, we began by spreading tarps over the grass. “This is easy,” I thought as I dragged a corner of the tarp. I had no idea what hard work lay ahead. The balloon’s basket came next. Square and resembling wicker material, it looked to me like a giant Easter basket—I guess that would make its passengers the “eggs.” We hefted the basket out of the trailer and onto the tarps. Slowly, everything was coming together.
We then dragged the balloon out of the trailer and out of its bag; the thing was enormous! 105,000 square feet to be exact. Grauberger explained to me that 105,000 basketballs could fit inside, giving some perspective on the sheer size of the balloon. Colorful ripstop nylon fabric billowed out onto the tarps. “Joseph’s Coat” was the balloon’s name, a biblical reference to Joseph’s “coat of many colors” in Genesis.
Now came the exciting part—inflating the balloon with a large fan. Grauberger and I held up the outside opening of the balloon as Pote started the fan, pulling a lever like the starter cord on a lawnmower. Loud noise and a rush of air surrounded me as the balloon gradually started to inflate.
As the air pumped into the balloon, Grauberger instructed us to go under it to loosen it up. At first I was apprehensive—wouldn’t we suffocate under all of that fabric? I didn’t suffocate, but I did have fun. We burrowed under the colorful nylon, Grauberger in the lead, throwing our arms back and forth, up and down, like we were swimming through a gigantic wave of color. I barely remember being scared or worried because I was laughing so hard.
Once the balloon had enough air in it, we got to walk around inside, too. This part was my favorite—I felt as if I was in elementary school P.E. again, when we got to play inside those massive, rainbow-colored parachutes. After just five seconds inside of that balloon, I went from 22 to 8 years old again, running around the perimeter and basking in the bright, vivid colors.
A few minutes after we exited the balloon, it started to rise. This was mesmerizing—seeing it transform from a flat cloth of colors to a three-dimensional giant lifting itself skyward. Other balloons around us also started to elevate, and soon the fields of Rancho San Rafael Regional Park were blooming with everything from giant Pepsi cans to strawberries and even Darth Vader’s head.
All of a sudden, the sky darkened as thunderclouds moved in above us. People in neon orange baseball caps rode around in golf carts warning the pilots of an approaching rainstorm that meant no take-off until it ended. However, like most desert storms in Nevada, it ended as quickly as it had begun, the sun peeked through the clouds, and it was time to get back to work.
Grauberger called me over to check out the burners for the balloon. He said one of them uses enough propane to heat 120 houses! Our balloon had two burners, but some use up to four. The purpose of these is to heat the air inside the balloon, which helps it to rise and stay in the air. Grauberger pulled the two burner triggers and a loud, unsettling noise made me jump. He laughed and told me it was my turn to test them out.
I got into the basket and nervously grabbed the triggers, not really wanting to be that close to the noise, but also not wanting to seem like a wimp. I pulled them at the same time and closed my eyes. Heat waves baked the top of my head, making me fear that my hair would catch on fire.
Next came the waiting. A wave of nervousness engulfed me as we waited for the event organizers to tell us to prepare for take-off. Assembling and preparing the balloon all morning had kept me from thinking about how nervous I was to go up; now there was nothing to do but wander around, and nothing to keep the edge away. Just as I was beginning to feel calm and more excited than nervous, an event organizer told Grauberger that the field was closed and that there would be no flying in the balloons today. Way to burst my bubble—or should I say balloon?
Grauberger must have seen the disappointment on my face because he offered to tether the balloon, which meant it would be tied to the ground but that we could go up in the air about 10-20 feet. While this would never be the same as 10,000 feet, I was still excited to go up.
With Pote on the ground holding onto one rope, and another tethered to Grauberger’s truck, we gradually lifted into the air. This part was bizarre to me—I suppose I figured that it would be a bumpy ride. Instead, I felt nothing under my feet and didn’t even realize that we were off the ground until I was looking down at the trees.
After coming back to the ground, I felt satisfied with the day. I didn’t get to ride in a hot air balloon the way I expected, but it was still quite the experience. I may not yet have an appreciation for the beautiful views one might see while thousands of feet up in a balloon, but I definitely have gained an appreciation for pilots—putting those monsters together and preparing them for flight is quite the job.