Local balloonist loves to share the experience | NevadaAppeal.com

Local balloonist loves to share the experience

Andrew Pridgen
Appeal Staff Writer

Something about hot air ballooning harks back to elementary school where posters capture stories-high balloons with captions like “The sky’s the limit” or “Imagination.”

The formula for such a fantastic journey skyward seemed so simple: A basket, fire and giant swatches of fabric stitched together in a rainbow – powered by some subconscious wish. But like the desire to become president, the chance to take that trip into the sky with only wicker separating you from the great below disappears with maturity.

But not for everyone.

Gardnerville resident Gary Peterson, 68, a retired Los Angeles City firefighter, will fly his dream into the scattered clouds of a Washoe Valley Indian summer this week as the Great Reno Balloon Race takes to the sky Sept. 7 for its 26th annual event at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park north of downtown Reno.

“I don’t think it was my life-long dream to have a balloon,” said Peterson, who has also flown ultralights – one-person sport aircraft. “I just got involved on a lark as crew for the organizers at the first event. I worked with those guys for about five years. Back then it was just a handful of pilots.

“I don’t think I ever imagined it becoming such a big deal. I didn’t think I’d ever have my own balloon, but here we are.”

One of Peterson’s early post-retirement acquaintances and business partners owned a hot air balloon business in Gardnerville known as Sierra Sunrise Balloon Company.

Peterson said the sensation of ballooning soon caught his fancy because of the communal thrill.

“You can’t share the experience with anyone on (ultralights),” he said. “I enjoy sharing the experience and flying with other people.”

Ballooning soon became Peterson’s passion. He admitted, it’s something that needs to get “in your blood”, otherwise the time and expense can become overwhelming.

“With balloons, you need a pilot’s license,” Peterson said. “You have to have time flying then take an oral exam, a written exam. All of the rules for pilots apply to us; as soon as we lift off the ground, we’re in FAA territory.”

The Gardnerville resident estimates that between fuel, insurance (all pilots carry at least a $1 million liability policy) and equipment (the balloon alone costs $25,000 and lasts only 40 hours of flying time), hot air balloons cost more than $200 an hour to fly.

“And that doesn’t pay the pilot anything,” he said.

Almost 20 years after his first flight, Peterson received his pilots’ license in 1997. Since then, along with the Great Reno Balloon Race, he’s given “dozens” of donated balloon rides to local charities including Austin’s House and Trinity Lutheran High School.

“It’s a great way to give back,” he said. “People’s eyes still light up when you mention ballooning.

Jennifer Sanzi, spokeswoman for the Great Reno Ballon Race, said often it’s the philanthropic efforts of the participating pilots that gets forgotten in the wake of the balloon bacchanalia.

“These are a great group of people who use their passion to help serve the community,” she said. “It’s the one thing we can’t emphasize enough.”

Great Reno Balloon Race

When: Sept. 7-9

Where: Rancho San Rafael Regional Park

Who will be there: 140,000 expected spectators

Highlight: 5:30 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 8 is the ‘Dawn Patrol’ – a launch of balloons in the dark taking to the sky as the sun rises.

On the Net: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6RcuSinWko4

• Andrew Pridgen can be reached at apridgen@nevadaappeal.com.