Balloon festival’s 40th year highlights enthusiasm, camaraderie

The Great Reno Balloon Race festival brings new and familiar characters to the event this year including Allycorn, Rocket Raccoon and Smokey Bear.
(Photo: Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal)

The Great Reno Balloon Race festival brings new and familiar characters to the event this year including Allycorn, Rocket Raccoon and Smokey Bear. (Photo: Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal)

It’s pretty common for Ilda Garrido-Ramirez and Robert Nagel to see two or three hot-air balloons land in a particular unincorporated north Reno neighborhood most years when the Great Reno Balloon Race takes place. Five, though, is an unusual spectacle around the Hoge Road Trailhead and Harris Road, slightly northwest of the Bonanza Casino.
“They don’t do any damage here, they’re good people,” Garrido-Ramirez said, walking out as the first balloons began landing. “We come down and talk to them. … This is the most we’ve had at one time.”


StarLite crewmember Katherine O’Connor sets the fan in preparation for balloon launch. Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal

 


It was Will Van Booraem’s first time seeing the balloons cast a momentary shadow over his backyard. Van Booraem moved to Reno two years ago from the Bay Area due to the cost of living and was excited to see two balloons approach and land near Hoge Road.
“I think it’s incredible,” he said. “I literally just walked outside and there was one 50 feet above my head, and that’s it. What a way to wake up, and I’m FaceTiming with my grandma, ‘You gotta check this out!’ ”


This year’s Great Reno Balloon Race festival celebrated its 40th anniversary at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno. Traditional events included its media preview day, its Super Glow Show with more than 40 balloons participating, eight balloons lifting off during Dawn Patrol and everyone joining in the daily mass ascension. A special remembrance ceremony was scheduled Saturday for the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and attendees were encouraged to “Paint the Park Pink” for breast cancer awareness by wearing their best pink, followed up by wearing blue for Donor Awareness Day Sunday.


StarLite pilot Peggy Watson-Meinke, center, ignites the burner with the help of her crewmembers to make the balloon ready for launch Thursday morning. Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal

 
The event brings pilots such as StarLite’s Peggy Watson-Meinke of Santa Paula, Calif., retired from biopharmaceutical company Amgen after 25 years. Watson-Meinke has been piloting for more than 30 years. When she comes to Reno, she doesn’t often wander too far north of the Interstate 80 when flying.
“They say I got my flying blood from my dad,” she said during Thursday’s media day. “He had an airplane as a kid. He was a fighter pilot in the Air Force for 20 years.”
She began pursuing flying lessons to become a pilot, but after marrying her husband who was German and moving to his native country, she said lessons weren’t available to her there. She started taking fixed-wing flying lessons after she became interested in balloons while running one morning, she said.


A view to the north of Reno as balloons prepare for liftoff. Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal

 
“I started chasing it down, and they always say chasing a balloon is like chasing a rainbow: It lands behind a hill and you never can find it,” she said.
However, she found an American pilot who was working on the same Air Force base as her husband near the time of her birthday, and joked her first flight cost her $100 and her second cost her $10,000 flying across the border of Germany into Luxembourg. She said it took about a year to earn her pilot’s license with the high-wind landings she had to master at the base in Germany, which are less of a factor in the United States.



Balloons are seen overlooking to the west of Reno after mass ascension on media preview day Thursday. Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal

 


Today, Watson-Meinke continues to travel with her crew and makes flights as high as 10,000 feet, being careful to monitor the temperature, flight path, wind speed and landing considerations. Since she can’t control specific steering, she has to remain mindful of the weight she’s carrying in the basket with this second balloon, a Lindstrand 90A, she now owns with the number of passengers – up to maximum of four – density, possible weather conditions and altitudes to maintain a level flight.
“We’ve gone up to 10,000 feet, we get into controlled air space where the airliners fly,” she said. “That’s why you’ll see us going up and down. We’re figuring out different altitudes. The wind’s going in slightly different directions. We’re trying to find the layer we like.”

Several balloons landed north of the Interstate 80 Thursday near or west of the Bonanza casino with crew members assisting each other for the landing. Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal

 


Watson-Meinke’s crew includes Katherine O’Connor, who retired in 2014, said she enjoys the “quaintance” of the hobby. She works the fan during the launches since she’s unable to help pull on the ropes and does the job no one typically wants – helping riders to fill out the required paperwork. She recalled different landings or variable weather that prevented them from even launching.
“You think it’s going to be a beautiful day and you come out (to the shows) anyhow, whether you fly or not,” she said. “They tell you whether it’s flyable. Today, though, is a beautiful day, and you’ve had so much smoke coming from California. … It’s an adventure you don’t ever want to forget.”
The crew’s adventures have taken to them to California, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico and, of course, Nevada.
“We do Albuquerque, and that’s thousands of balloons … that’s 700 or 800 balloons all inflating at once,” she said. “Here (in Reno), you don’t get lost in the crowd.”
Roberta and Victor Luster, husband and wife crewmembers for Watson-Meinke from Santa Clarita, Calif., also fly their own balloon Illusterous, a 6-foot-tall Cameron that can carry up to three.
Roberta Luster said she enjoys that crews assist each other from setup to landings at the festivals and share in the important moments, toasting each other or first-time adventurers after a flight. Watson-Meinke trained their own daughter, Erica Luster, who has 45 hours of flight time and continues working with other friends and attending festivals. She also said she enjoys the touring to Palmdale and Lancaster, Calif., Lake Tahoe or Winnemucca where the crew goes next week, as well as the special invitations to festivals.
“This is our balloon family,” Roberta Luster said. “God forbid if something happens to us, we know (our daughter will) be taken care of. … We did this so that Erica could have a future.”


Several balloons landed north of the Interstate 80 Thursday near or west of the Bonanza casino with crew members assisting each other for the landing. Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal

 

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