Circle the city in a balloon, and everyone’s watching you |

Circle the city in a balloon, and everyone’s watching you

Becky Bosshart
Becky Bosshart/Nevada Appeal The Energizer Bunny balloon, the largest balloon in America at 15 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty, floats above a north Reno neighborhood. Thursday morning's mass ascension also included Eagle, Lilly and Joey the bees and Bud E. Beaver. The Great Reno Balloon Race at Rancho San Rafael Park ends Sunday.

Flying high over north Reno in a hot air balloon, you’ll hear the hum of traffic on Interstate 80. The morning haze over the city looks like sweater lint.

Fly low, and the dogs start barking. One black-and-white dog ran in circles beneath the balloon. It picked up a tennis ball in its mouth and dropped it to bark some more. Anyone for a game of fetch?

This is pilot Jim Gibson’s eighth time flying in the Great Reno Balloon Race. Freedom II is a beach-ball-colored balloon sponsored by

“I like flying in Reno best,” the 12-year veteran pilot said. “But it’s hard because there’s not enough landing places.”

The balloon softly floated above wood-shingled roofs, lilypad-filled ponds and verdant bushes. All around him, balloon pilots were setting down in a quiet north Reno neighborhood. A guy walked his dog down the street, people drove their cars to work, and a yellow-and-orange fish-shaped balloon landed on Putnam Drive.

Its crew scurried to weigh down the basket. They laid out a dark green sheet to catch the balloon as it deflated. The sheet took up the entire roadway.

“I’m going to the field! To the field!” Gibson yelled to his girlfriend of four years, Kathy Kelly, who was on the ground. She’s also his crew leader. Kelly ran back to their white Chevrolet, which was marked with a Balloon Chase Crew sticker. Kelly had thought he was going to touch down on the street.

Kelly was followed by the other volunteer crew member, Josh Masterson, a spectator enlisted from the field to chase.

Spectators like Masterson seemed eager to volunteer to do anything during the Great Reno Balloon Race. Masterson helped, even though he had recently broken his hand.

From the sky, you could see many of the chaser trucks carting trailers through residential streets. Until the balloon safely lands, the chase crew keeps it in sight. They’ll help weigh down the basket and gather up the balloon’s envelope when it lands, whether that happens in a field, the road or someone’s front yard.

Gibson said Thursday was a good day as he is steered Freedom II back to Rancho San Rafael Park, where he had taken off about 50 minutes before. Gibson made a small circle over the city and set down almost exactly where he took off. That’s unusual for hot-air balloons.

“One year, I landed in a Hells Angels’ barbecue pit,” Gibson said. Conversation stops whenever he presses the burner valve. The sound is akin to a blow torch, which is almost what it is. “That was in a bad part of town.”

He became interested in balloons after reading a book by a great balloon pilot, who died in a crash landing. Gibson wears a plastic safety helmet while flying, and he makes all of his passengers wear one, too.

Gibson, of Sacramento, was ready to land, but he was short on crew. They don’t usually fly on media day, so they didn’t have a crew secured.

Two retired Reno men on a bike ride stopped to help get the balloon up. And a couple walking their border collie along the park’s white fence helped bring it down.

John Burr and Chrysta Porter came down from their house in the hills to look at the balloons.

“We come down here every year,” he said, pulling on a rope attached to the top of the balloon.

The balloon envelope was folded into a bag, and the crew sat on the bag to compress it.

“An eight-story building goes right back into this bag,” the pilot said.

23rd Annual Great Reno Balloon Race

At Rancho San Rafael Park in Reno, off North Sierra Street and North McCarran Boulevard

Balloon race parking is at the University of Nevada, Reno

Schedule highlights


5:30 a.m. Gates open

6:30 a.m. Mass ascension of more than 100 balloons and Hare & Hound competition

8 a.m. Balloon Blackjack Tournament

9:30 a.m. Tissue paper balloon launch

Saturday and Sunday

4:30 a.m. Gates open

5 a.m. Glow Show

5:30 a.m. Dawn Patrol

6:30 a.m. Mass ascension and Hare & Hound competition

8 a.m. Balloon Blackjack Tournament

Contact Becky Bosshart at or 881-1212.