Welcome to the gravity-defying world of

Two Feet Off The Ground


Race Date Location Result
Great Reno Balloon Race 2021 September 10th-12th Rancho San Rafael Regional Park This year's event was cancelled due to inclement weather, I did manage to get up in the air - but not for long! See my recount below
Arizona Balloon Classic 2020 January
Goodyear Ballpark We entered the Hare and Hound race on day 1 and 3 of the Classic. Our first attempt was shocking, but our second got us first place!
Great Reno Balloon Race 2019 September
Rancho San Rafael Regional Park Our team came second in the Hare and Hound Competition! Catching up to the Hare balloon only 78 seconds after the gold medalists
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta 2019 October
Balloon Fiesta Park The most gorgeous weather I've ever flown in. We finished 2nd in the Gas Balloon Division on Saturday and 4th on Sunday.
Great Reno Balloon Race 2018 September
Rancho San Rafael Regional Park I got to pilot a novelty balloon for the first time this year! (The 'angry bird') so I only participated in the exhibition flights
Great Reno Balloon Race 2017 September
Rancho San Rafael Regional Park This year I piloted the "Purple Haze" balloon - and we placed 6th in the Four Person Crew race
Red Rock Balloon Rally 2017 December
Gallup, New Mexico I got to fly in the world's largest tethered helium balloon - the US Air Force Thunderbirds balloon. This thing is absolutely massive, with a diameter of almost 400 feet, so it's not built for racing
Great Reno Balloon Race 2017 September
Rancho San Rafael Regional Park This year I piloted the "Purple Haze" balloon - and we placed 6th in the Four Person Crew race
Arizona Balloon Classic 2015 Janaury
Fear Farm Sports Complex We brought home the coveted "Silver Basket" award (the top prize for ballooning is the "Gold Basket", but there are only three of them given out, so it's hard to win)
Arizona Balloon Classic 2012 December
Gilbert Civic Center My first ever ballooning event as a pilot not just a visitor. I competed in the Hound and Hare event and did HORRIBLY, was lots of fun

The 40th Annual Great Reno Balloon Race

Every year I and some friends (including a few NASA buddies and one guy who I did my Masters of Aeroscience with) compete in the Great Reno Balloon Race. It's always a fantastic weekend, and there's nothing like the thrill of rushing through the air in a hot air balloon. This year's race was especially memorable, as we weren't sure we'd get to fly at all.

Friday was marginal weather for flying, but everything seemed on track for Saturday. However, that night a storm rolled through Reno and on to Lake Tahoe, and it looked like Saturday was toast. Come morning, it was blowing a steady 20-30 knots (about 25 mph) at the field, and the uncertainty was palpable. All of the balloons were blown around in their launch area — it's one of those rare weather conditions where they can be moving around while fully inflated — and several pilots decided to call it quits and pack up their balloons and leave before the race started. By early afternoon, it was becoming clear that everything was indeed cancelled for the day, and a mass exodus started for those who had traveled some distance to be there. Thankfully, we were staying at someone's house just about 5 minutes from the field, so we soon made the decision to all head back to our base of operations, have a beer and settle in for the evening.

It was getting to be happy hour when my phone rang. The voice on the other end said something along the lines of

"Hey Lauri — what are you doing? Do you want to fly?"

Wait, what?

Yep, there's still a balloon in the air. And because of that, there's still a race going on. If you'll remember, the race is mostly decided by time and not distance, so if a few balloons hang on until right before sunset, they (potentially) could still do very well.

At that point, it was already near 4 pm, and sunset would come at slightly before 7 pm. So, after a brief discussion among our group, we decided to go for it! We rushed over to the field, everybody threw theirLaunch gear into the trailer and we took off for the venues for the evening's festivities: the Reno Rodeo and the PBR (the Professional Bull Riders show).

The formula for flying in such conditions is quite simple: find a safe landing spot and plan on being there for awhile. The wind was steady and strong out of the west at about 20-25 knots at that point, which meant it was blowing across the airport's main runway at 16/34. The runway is long enough to land a 737 commercial plane however, so we figured that out of all the options available to us, it's probably going to be one of the safest places to land — after all, there wouldn't be any puzzled pilots wondering why a giant balloon was on their runway.

Early in the flight, I had spotted an abandoned airstrip about 30 miles away. It looked like it was in decent shape and might work, but I wanted to check it out a little better before we committed to making the tough out-and-back landing there. The cockpit of my hot air balloon looks very much like an airplane cockpit, with all kinds of instruments and gauges, but there's no windscreen, no windshield wipers and everything that looks like a yoke or a stick is actually my gas controls — one is for burning and the other adjusts the amount of gas being used (just like on your stovetop at home). When you're flying, you need to maintain a constant watch as you fly, not just looking around at what you're flying over (qualified balloon pilots are also certified private pilots, so they're very familiar with this) but also keeping an eye on ordinary objects like power lines, trees and power poles that can hide a very powerful wind stream.

As we flew across the desert near Pyramid Lake, I spotted something about half a mile ahead that looked more promising than the airstrip. It turned out to be Star Place Ranch (http://starplacepreachrsranch.org/), a working ranch with about 10 people living on site. The owner was very friendly, and a couple of his ranch hands were there to help us unchockour trailer so we could turn it around for the long flight home. We even managed to scare up some dinner — he was going to go into town for groceries and picked something up for us.

After a couple hours, the sun began setting in the west, so it was time to cinch down our cargo and plan our route home. Our destination was back at the airport (we figured it's an airport, so everyone there is used to aircraft flying around, right?) but because it was getting close to sunset (and because of those pesky laws about not flying after dark), we couldn't take the direct route. Instead, we had to make a big U-turn south toward Virginia City and take a very windy route around the northern edge of Lake Tahoe before finally heading north to home base.

The longest part of the journey was over the lake itself, as flight conditions were just about ideal — light and variable winds with good visibility all around. That's when it really hits you how immense Lake Tahoe is. It's hard to describe how vast it feels when you're just skimming the surface in a hot air balloon — it's easily twice the size of any of the Great Lakes, and yet it's nestled right in the Sierra Nevada mountains. After about 30 minutes or so of flying, we spotted the lighted runway at the Incline Village Airport, our last checkpoint before home.

We finally touched down back at the field shortly before 10 pm, and were greeted by a crowd of curious people who wanted to know all about our journey. It was a great way to end an otherwise disappointing weekend, and it just goes to show you that even when everything goes wrong, there's still a chance for everything to turn out right in the end.

2019 Photo Highlights

Most important step of the morning!
Jim shows off the envelope to visitors
Our view from inside the balloon
My son's photos of his favourite balloons during mass ascension
My favourite event, the pre-sunrise glow-show