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Pilots reach for the skies at balloon races
by Cortney Maddock
Sep 10, 2009 | 2245 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune/ Sarah Cooper - Wells Fargo balloon bees Lilly and Joey wait to be inflated Thursday at the dawn of the 2009 Great Reno Balloon Races.
Tribune/ Sarah Cooper - Wells Fargo balloon bees Lilly and Joey wait to be inflated Thursday at the dawn of the 2009 Great Reno Balloon Races.
Early Thursday morning, a group of pilots gathered under a large tarp to discuss the crisp, comfortable, wind-free morning air.

However, it is noted, these conditions only apply to the launch and landing field, which is located at 4,923 feet. But at any elevation, it should be a relatively good day for a leisurely jaunt around Rancho San Rafael Park.

After the briefing, the balloonists walked across the dew-covered grass field at the park to their numbered spots to start setting up their prides and joys. The sun barely peeked over the mountains to the east, but smiles and jokes about the early morning hours only added to the excitement of what was about to happen.

The 27th Great Reno Balloon Races are about to launch the first colorful hot air balloons that will dot the morning sky throughout the weekend.

The Great Reno Balloon Races, which began in 1982 with a mere 20 hot air balloons, now has more than 100 balloon pilots that participate in the annual event.

Pilots Ron Frusher and Dave Amundson drove more than 1,800 miles from Waco, Texas to participate in the weekend’s events. Frusher has been piloting hot air balloons since obtaining his license in 1984 and Amundson, in addition to being a hot air balloon pilot, works as a contractor for NASA.

“I flew here about 20 years ago,” Frusher said. “I came back last year. I really like it here.”

Frusher and Amundson have come to Reno not only to enjoy their love of flying but also at the request of Dr. Bill Graettinger and his wife, Karen, who own four Curves locations in Reno. Curves is a fitness gym for women.

Karen said she and her husband both enjoy ballooning and when they heard that Curves headquarters had a balloon the couple could fly in the Great Reno Balloon Races they jumped on the opportunity.

“My husband and I love balloons and love ballooning,” Karen said. “We love to give back to the community and this is such a great event.”

Frusher said working for Curves has given them the opportunity to travel around the world to fly the balloon, which only adds to his more than 25 years of experience.

“I wrote a book about hot air balloons and training,” Frusher said. “We are hoping that the (Federal Aviation Administration) will adopt it as a training manual for the country.”

Frusher has many accolades to his piloting name, including placing 13th at the 2009 U.S. Nationals Hot Air Balloon Championships and seventh in 2008.

As Frusher and Amundson unpacked the balloon’s envelope, or the tear drop-shaped part of the balloon that holds the air, they explained that filling it to get the balloon ready to fly is sheer science.

A large fan is used to inject the envelope with cold air, which is held in by the nylon and polyester fabric of the envelope. Once the envelope is mostly filled with the cold air, the balloon’s basket, which is on its side, holds the propane tanks that will release hot air into the envelope.

When the hot air from the propane-powered flame ignites and flows into the envelope, it excites the cooler air’s molecules causing the balloon to lift. Amundson said the basket, passengers and full fuel tanks weight about 700 pounds at liftoff.

Something special about the Curves balloon is its shape: It is more slender and elongated, and it has special vents that help the balloon steer.

“This is a racing balloon,” Bill said. “It has vents that allow us to turn, which is unusual.”

Frusher explained that at different elevations there are different wind patterns and that a pilot can ride those wind patterns.

“Balloons will go with the wind,” Bill said. “So the pilot will look for winds that he wants. (Ron) can stay over the field all day long just by working the wind.”

As Frusher loops over Rancho San Rafael Park using the wind to his advantage, he explained that he was introduced to ballooning by his brother-in-law.

“I just fell in love with it from that first time,” Frusher said.

Ballooning has also left a lasting impression on Bill, who took his first flight more than 25 years ago.

“My first balloon flight was in 1981 in Albuquerque, New Mexico,” Bill said. “We’ve brought the (Curves) balloon in the last two years, so I’ve been ballooning with Ron.”

Bill is such an avid balloonist that he has an hour log book and is working toward getting his pilot license.

Frusher also has his fixed-wing license to fly planes but Bill explained that hot air balloons require a different license.

“To fly a hot air balloon you need an LTA license,” Bill said. “That’s lighter than air.”

As part of the Graettingers' excitement to share ballooning with their customers, they held a contest at each of the four Curves locations they own in Reno. One winner from each location will receive a balloon ride this weekend but for one winner it will be extra special. (For more information on the Reno Curves, visit

Karen said one gym member will be celebrating her 92nd birthday with a balloon ride today. She said although the winner thought twice about the ride, her family convinced her to do it and now she is excited.

Frusher and Amundson are also excited for this weekend’s events, which begin today with a mass ascension launch at 6:45 a.m.

“We come from Texas and we love it here; we miss it and we keep coming every year,” Amundson said, adding that people should come out to enjoy the good weather and fun event.

In addition to the hot air balloons, the E.L. Cord Foundation Tissue Paper Balloon Launch for children will be held at 9:30 a.m. at Rancho San Rafael park today.

On Saturday and Sunday, events begin at 5 a.m. with the Glow Show. Dawn Patrol begins at 5:30 a.m. and mass ascension begins at 6:45 a.m. On Saturday, people wearing their pajamas can enter the world’s largest pajama competition from 5 to 10 a.m. and a bedhead competition will be held from 5 to 8 a.m.

After mass ascension on Saturday, other field events will include the Hare and the Hound competition during which pilots must follow the hare balloon that places an X on the ground. Hound balloons must then throw a bean bag at the X. The bag that lands closest to the X wins.

Also on Saturday, the Balloons and Tunes Wine Walk will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. in downtown Reno. The wine walk is $20 per person. For more information about the wine walk, call 323-7766 or visit

For more information about the Great Reno Balloon Races, visit

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