Up, up and away on an unforgettable hot air balloon ride in the skies over Reno

Last Thursday, yours truly had a golden opportunity to check off one more item on his personal list of "fun things to do" in the life of Little Donnie Q.

Wanna guess what it was?

Well, I finally got the long-awaited chance to take a hot air balloon ride.

Yep, a real-life, hot air balloon ride.

I did it as a representative of the Nevada Appeal on "Media Day" as part of the annual Great Reno Balloon Race.

Media Day is that special day when all of those media folks like myself are given a chance to take a ride in a hot air balloon in the skies over Reno.

Wow, what an experience!

On Thursday morning, Craig Swope, executive director for Carson Access Television, and I left Carson to drive to Reno at the ghastly hour of 4:15 a.m. Geez, I don't particularly care for that drive between Carson and Reno and especially at 4:15 in the morning. I would never make a good commuter.

The reason for early departure is that the two of us were told by Alan Rogers, fellow columnist for the Nevada Appeal, that we needed to be at Rancho San Rafael Park in northwest Reno by no later than 5 a.m.

Rogers was our official contact with the Great Reno Balloon Races.

He spoke with forked tongue. We got there at 5 a.m. and nothing happened until there was a pilot and media briefing at 6:30 a.m. We had to cool our heels, until then, by sitting in my little, red, pickup and listening to "oldies" music on the radio. Geez, the worst part was Swope trying to sing along with the music! I'll get even with both of them at a later date!

By the time the 6:30 a.m. meeting was held, I was ready to kill both Rogers and Swope. I needed a cup of coffee, big time! I am not a happy camper until I have that first cup. But you know what? After I finally had that coffee and a chocolate pastry, I once again began to like Rogers and Swope - a little bit.

Swope and I checked in at the registration table, where we were both assigned to ride in the Benehana Restaurant balloon. That particular balloon was sponsored by the Flamingo Hilton Hotel and Casino of Reno.

We had been advised to dress in layered clothing due to the chilly weather, And, yes Virginia, it was chilly at first but quickly warmed up. My attire consisted of thermo underwear, warm pants, long sleeve shirt, sweater and heavy coat. It sure felt good. And, I'm the guy who loves cold weather!

The Benehana balloon was piloted by Frank Prell of Captiva Island, Fla.

Prell has 24 years of ballooning experience, owns 11 different balloons and has been up to 65,000 feet in a special-built balloon designed to set high-altitude world records.

It was his first-ever trip to the Reno area and if you think I was cold at the beginning of the ride, you should have seen him.

Prell was accompanied by a "Chase Crew" who remained behind while we were aloft. The crew included Irina Snetkova, his finance. She came to the United States about a year ago from Russia where she was an attorney.

On our 2-hour ride, Prell, Swope and I were accompanied by Paul Mazurowski, the director of food and beverage for the Flamingo Hilton. The four of us were crammed into the small gondola but no one complained. We were too busy having a "ton of fun."

Swope brought a video camera from Carson Access Television and between the two of us, he got plenty of footage to show at a later date on Channel 10.

As a matter of interest, the Benehana balloon costs $25,000, weighs 250 pounds and when full, contains 86,000 cubic feet of hot air. The hot air is provide by a propane "burner" that Prell constantly turned off and on as he adjusted our traveling altitude, up and down. Our horizontal movement was mainly controlled by Mother Nature's fickle air and wind currents.

We lifted off at 7:15 a.m. on an absolutely gorgeous, cloudless, chilly morning. Heck, the only thing missing were the songs "Up, Up and Away" or "Aquarius" playing while we rose into the sky. Most impressively, we were the first balloon airborne! The ascent to 500 feet was fabulous and the view was unforgettable. It was a kick slowly floating over the northwest part of Reno and waving to people as they looked up at us from their yards, sidewalks or streets.

When all of the balloons were finally airborne, there were more than 60 balloons slowly floating in the skies over Reno. They included balloons representing AT&T, Bacardi Rum, the Eveready Rabbit, Goodwrench, Korbel, Nevada Bell, Puff The Magic Dragon, Remax and United Van Lines, just to name a few.

Our balloon floated to the south, then to the west and then finally to the north. Our height varied from 500 feet to about 1,500 feet above Reno. And when we landed about 9:15 a.m., we set down on on a neighborhood street in northwest Reno, north of I-80. In just a matter of minutes, the Chase Crew captured our gondola, deflated the balloon bag, stowed it and the gondola into the back of a large truck and we were returned to Rancho San Rafael Park.

Would I do it again?

You bet!

I'd do it in a "New York" minute!

But next time, I would take the ride with a better estimate of when to be there by Rogers and with a lot less singing by Swope.

All in all, with just those two exceptions, it was a fabulous experience!

My first-ever hot air balloon ride.

I hope that it is not my last.

-- Bet Your Favorite Pigeon

Bet your favorite pigeon that he can't tell you how often the Great Reno Balloon races have been held.

When he grins and replies, "This is the 19th year," you are in deep trouble and need to find a new pigeon.

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