Nearly 100 colorful balloons filled the sky this past weekend at the Great Reno Balloon Race. Even Yoda, Darth Vader and Smokey the Bear made appearances at the event, which attracts more than 100,000 spectators each year. Reno Public Radio’s Alexa Ard was there and has this profile of Pilot Tony Rivara.
Rivara relies on his crew of five to unravel hundreds of pounds of equipment, including his 250-pound balloon, called an envelope, and its basket. In order to get this baby off the ground, a crew member holds down a fan to start blowing cold air into the balloon.
"It's circulating at 2500 RPMs," Rivara explains, "and things have a tendency to get sucked into it if you're not paying attention.
Next come the flames, and once you’re flying, Rivara says you just go with the wind:
"The wind, at different elevations, blows usually at different directions," he says, "it's really kind of strange. One balloon will be going this way and one above him will be going the other way. And you look for those different layers of wind. They can be as subtle as 10 feet to get where you want to go."
Rivara is now floating so high he can see the city. His crew follows him below by car and they chat over walkie talkies.
"Don't go anywhere! Stay right there," a crew member says to Rivara in jest.
Rivara isn’t a newcomer; he’s been a pilot for 25 years in races across the country where he’s seen interest in flying balloons wane.
"It's dying," he explains. "Young people, trying to get them into it, it's expensive and they just can't afford it.
Just a basic tear-drop balloon, basket and equipment can set you back $50,000.
"So most of your pilots are old," Rivara adds. "There are a few young ones around but not enough. There used to be waiting lists to get into this event; now we're scrounging to find pilots."
But Rivara can’t worry about that too much. He’s got a smooth landing to focus on.