- The Magazine
- Current Issue
- Events & Shows
- Web Extras
- Yellow Pages
Balloons and airplanes vie for your attention.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (The Great Reno Balloon Race)
Ascending in a hot air balloon is like no other form of flying. Even as we rise 1,000 feet or more there’s no sensation of motion. No wind. No sound.
Pilot Brent Rolland checks the instruments while I peer over the side of the basket. Spread out below us, thousands of people watch the growing spectacle in the sky as more than 100 hot-air balloons decorate the morning horizon over Rancho San Rafael Park during the Great Reno Balloon Race.
The event, September 7-9, is the first of six upcoming Nevada aerial festivals. It’s followed by the Reno National Championship Air Races, The Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival in Elko, BalloonaPalooza in North Las Vegas, Boulder City Air Show, and Aviation Nation in Las Vegas.
As we float above Reno, Rolland explains that balloons are usually flown in the early morning or evening when winds are calm.
“Unlike glider pilots, we want to be on the ground when thermals start,” he says, referring to updrafts caused when the sun warms the earth. “Winds of even less than 10 miles per hour can make landing tricky.”
Rolland, a software designer, hauls his 90,000-cubic-inch balloon, Shooting Star, from his home in Los Altos, California, because he says the Reno event is among the oldest and most established in the country.
“There’s real camaraderie,” he says. “It’s a place where old friendships are rekindled and new friendships are built.”
Spectators who get up before dawn are rewarded with one of the largest hot-air balloon displays in the nation. The balloon race offers three different types of displays, competitive events, food, and music. In addition, the Reno festival offers something not available at all balloon events: the opportunity to wander around the launch field and watch the pilots and ground crews as they inflate the colorful giants.
“That’s been one of the big draws for us is that you can get up close and personal,” says Ginnie Kersey, a longtime event organizer. “There have been cases where people have been standing around and a pilot will say, ‘Hey, come over and help us launch the balloon.’ The visitors enjoy it and the pilots do, too.”
On September 12-16, the National Championship Air races roar into Reno with aircraft competing in six categories, plus military and civilian aircraft exhibits, aerobatic displays, and performances by the Canadian Forces Snowbirds flying team.
The racing planes range from custom biplanes to small jets. The planes that have the greatest following, however, are in the unlimited class of racers—mostly modified World War II fighters. The P-51 Mustang and Hawker Sea Fury are the fastest competitors, reaching speeds of more than 500 mph. The former warplanes streak around an eight-mile course marked off by 55-foot-high pylons.
At one point in the course the super-powered planes, tucked perilously close to one another, sail around a pylon then scream by at eye level directly in front of the grandstand. Spectators see flashes of silver wings and feel thudding vibrations in the air.
“There’s nothing like the sound of eight of those [planes] going by,” says Southwest Airlines pilot Birch Entriken. “The hair on the back of your neck stands straight up.”
Entriken, from Truckee, California, was an air-race spectator before competing in 1999 in a single-seat lightweight Formula One, which can fly more than 250 mph.
“There was always something about the air races that was intoxicating to me and I had to figure out a way to experience it. It’s the whole milieu,” he says, referring to the attraction of the air races. “It’s the speed, the sound, the danger, the excitement.”
For a pilot, he says, the appeal is even more intense. “You’re down low, you’re going fast, and quite often you’re in traffic. It demands precision. It’s probably the one time in my life where I’ve experienced the most pure, unfettered concentration.
“You’re purely in the moment. Usually it’s hard to concentrate on one thing for any length of time without something distracting you,” he says. “But this is one of the few times when you go into this zone and there’s nothing else on your mind.”
Between races a variety of stunt pilots perform. Kent Pietsch, for example, lands his 1942 high-wing, single-engine aircraft atop a motor home.
“Every day from 8 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. there’s non-stop, in-the-air action,” says Valerie Enos, director of event services for the air races. “You can’t get bored.”
The Snowbirds arrive September 13, their graceful nine-plane formations performing what Enos calls an “aerial ballet.”
Moving east across the state to Elko, during the Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival, September 21-23, fans will find a balloon launch, barbecue, vendors, kids’ games, and a balloon glow at dusk at Great Basin College. Mass Launches and tethered rides are offered Saturday and Sunday at Spring Creek Sports Complex.
Also on September 21-23, North Las Vegas holds its BalloonaPalooza, which has balloon glows, entertainment, food, vendors, and a carnival. Hot-air balloons, including uniquely shaped ones like Wells Fargo’s honey bees, fly over Craig Ranch Regional Park’s trees and ponds.
Other Southern Nevada aerial events include the Boulder City Air Show on November 3 with fly-bys, aerobatic demos, free airplane rides for kids eight to 17, helicopter rides, and other aviation displays.
On November 10-11, the action moves to Aviation Nation in Las Vegas. This year aircraft representing the history of the U.S. Air Force and of flight itself will be overhead and on display at Nellis Air Force Base.
Planes from a Wright Brothers model to a mockup of the newest fighter, the F-35, will be on the flightline. Captain Justin McVay, Nellis public affairs officer, says up to 200 planes will be showcased, including the unmanned Predator, B-2 Stealth Bomber, foreign military planes, plus many vintage military and civilian aircraft. The fly-bys will include 1940s fighters paired with modern air force jets and civilian aircraft. Stunt fliers will be at the controls of everything from helicopters to a MiG jet.
The highlight of the Nellis show is the homecoming appearance of the Vegas-based Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force demonstration squadron flying brightly painted F-16s. “They’re 18 inches apart most of the time,” says McVay, “sometimes upside down. And they’re pushing close to mach 1, nearly reaching the sound barrier.”
Meanwhile, things are much slower over Reno. Balloon pilot Rolland says we’re ready to land. Our hot-air balloon touches down as softly as landing on a cloud.
UP, UP, AND AWAY
Following is a list of scheduled hot-air balloon races and air shows. Unconfirmed shows are listed by month.
Great Reno Balloon Race: Sept. 7-9, Rancho San Rafael Park, Reno, free. Park-and-ride options are available. renoballoon.com, 775-826-1181
Reno National Championship Air Races: Sept. 12-16, Reno-Stead Field, eight miles north of Reno. Parking, including overnight RV parking, available at the field. Admission prices vary. Reserved grandstand seats range from $11 for Sept. 12 to $38 for the final day. Pit passes available. airrace.org, 775-972-6663
Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival: Sept. 21-23, Elko, fees for rides, no charge to watch launches. elkonevada.com, 775-738-7135
BalloonaPalooza: Sept. 21-23, North Las Vegas, free. cityofnorthlasvegas.com, 702-633-2650
Boulder City Air Show: Nov. 3, Boulder City Airport, free. boulder-city-chamber.com, 702-293-9405
Aviation Nation: Nov. 10-11, Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, free. Parking and shuttle service from the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Attendees are subject to security search. aviationnation.org
Red, White, and Blue Balloon Festival: Jan. 12-13, Las Vegas. poloamerica.com, 760-777-8081
Historic Wendover Airfield Fly-In & Airshow: Wendover. westwendovercity.com, 435-665-2308
Austin Fly-In: Austin. austinnevada.com, 775-964-2410
Lake in the Sky Air Show: Lake Tahoe Airport, South Lake Tahoe. lakeintheskyairshow.com, 530-541-0480