For pilots, it’s more about the ground than the sky |

For pilots, it’s more about the ground than the sky

Andrew Pridgen
Appeal Staff Writer
Carrie Richards/Nevada Appeal News Service A view from above shows the last of the balloons blowing up for a tour around Reno early Thursday morning.

It’s not about the balloons.

Well, not all about the balloons.

Those who’ve sat on Highway 395 waiting for downtown Reno traffic to clear the week after Labor Day gawk overhead at a pair of buzzing bees, a “sushi” fish, a dirigible Smokey Bear and a giant frog floating silent above the casino rooftops, usually have one question should they encounter a balloon pilot:

“How do you do it?”

“Oh that’s the easy one,” said Gardnerville-based Greg Peterson, 68, a balloon pilot since 1997. “We’re full of hot air.”

Peterson, flying the “Patriot,” started his four-day run at the 26th annual Great Reno Balloon Race Thursday at Rancho San Rafael Park north of downtown Reno, with a short flight and a celebratory breakfast.

If you ask him, the event really takes off once he’s back on the ground.

“This is a social sport,” he said. “Just look at it this way – the first rule of ballooning is if you can find a safe landing, take it; the second rule – if you can walk away from the landing, it’s a good one.”

Not one to delay the celebration, Peterson by 9:30 a.m. had taken a 40-minute spin in his balloon, parked it in an empty field off McCarran Boulevard (“if you find a place to land – you land; you have to be crazy to do this sport, who else takes an eight-story apartment building a thousand feet in the air with no place to put it down”), stowed balloon and basket in his trailer, popped a triumvirate of Champagne bottles and shared a toast for “virgin” balloon riders – giving the history of the sport, its significance locally and even christened one new enthusiast after his maiden voyage.

“You are now a member of a select club,” he said as he dotted the forehead of a newbie, fingertips soaked in bubbly.

Peterson’s cohorts and crew, eight strong, then sat down for an impromptu breakfast of eggs, bacon and melon. They enjoyed mimosas and spoke of dogs, grandkids and paused to reflect on what brought them to the sport.

“It’s this can’t you see?” said Dick Clark, also a Gardnerville resident and one of the founding fathers of the Great Reno Balloon Race. “I don’t think any of us imagined this would ever raise money for charity or become such a big-deal sponsored event.”

Clark, Peterson’s mentor in the sky, said that he’s a “happy member” of Peterson’s crew this year as he flipped three slices of bacon and sipped his Champagne.

“The pilots really are family here,” he said.

Indeed, as Incline resident Katie Griggs’ giant goldfish “Sushi” touched down next to the “Patriot” Thursday, Peterson’s wife, Dot, motioned for the passengers of the Patriot to jump out and help Griggs.

“If you’re gonna just stand there, do something useful,” she said, leading the crew with a smile. “We’re about to be engulfed by a fish.”

As the nylon fish began to deflate onto its custom tarp, Griggs, the defacto emergency seamstress for many of the balloon race’s participants, spoke warmly about the fraternity of pilots.

“We all help each other, you have to if you’re going to survive in this sport,” she said.

Griggs, who also flies the ReMax balloons during local events, repairs balloons year-round out of her Mound House shop. The 15-foot trailer she brings to the races, outfitted with all her balloon patch and repair equipment, helps “keep everyone in the sky.”

“Because that’s what the people come to see, and that’s what keeps them coming back,” she said.

• Contact reporter Andrew Pridgen at or 881-1219.

By the numbers

Event cost: $300,000

Number of spectators: 130,000

Number of balloons: 100

Individual cost: $200 in propane alone per hour flying time

Balloon cost: $25,000 and up for an eight-story inflatable nylon balloon.

Minimum balloon pilot hours to participate: 100

Great Reno Balloon Race Schedule

Rancho San Rafael Regional Park, north of downtown Reno


6:45 a.m. – Wells Fargo mass ascension


5 a.m. – Glow show (all ballooners inflate their craft)

5:30 a.m. – Dawn patrol

2-5 p.m. – Balloons, Jazz & Wine Walk


5 a.m. – Glow show

5:30 a.m. – Dawn patrol