Hot Air Balloon Festival’s 40th Year Highlights Excitement and Camaraderie

The Great Reno Balloon Race festival brings new and familiar characters to the event this year, including Allycorn, Rocket Raccoon and Smokey Bear. (Photo: Jessica Garcia/Nevada Appeal)

It is quite common for Ilda Garrido-Ramirez and Robert Nagel to see two or three hot air balloons land in an unincorporated neighborhood in North Reno most years when the Great Reno Balloon Race takes place. Five, however, is an unusual sight around the Hoge Road trailhead and Harris Road, slightly northwest of Bonanza Casino.
“They don’t do damage here, they’re good people,” Garrido-Ramirez said, stepping out as the first balls began to land. “We go down and talk to them. … That’s the most we’ve had at a time.
StarLite crew member Katherine O’Connor prepares the fan for the balloon launch. Appeal by Jessica Garcia/Nevada


It was the first time that Will Van Booraem had seen the balloons cast a momentary shadow over his garden. Van Booraem moved to Reno two years ago from the Bay Area due to cost of living and was thrilled to see two balloons approach and land near Hoge Road.
“I think it’s amazing,” he said. “I literally walked out and there was one 50 feet above my head, and that was it. What a way to wake up, and I’m FaceTiming with my grandma, “You gotta check that out!” ”


This year, the Great Reno Balloon Race festival celebrated its 40th anniversary at Rancho San Rafael Regional Park in Reno. Traditional events included its media preview day, its Super Glow Show with over 40 balloons participating, eight balloons taking off during Dawn Patrol, and everyone joining in the daily mass ascension. A special remembrance ceremony was planned for the events of September 11, 2001, on Saturday, and attendees were encouraged to ‘paint the park pink’ for breast cancer awareness by wearing their best pink, followed by blue for the day. donor outreach on Sunday.

StarLite pilot Peggy Watson-Meinke, center, lights the burner with help from her crew members to prepare the balloon for launch Thursday morning. Appeal by Jessica Garcia/Nevada


The event brings together pilots such as StarLite’s Peggy Watson-Meinke of Santa Paula, Calif., who retired from biopharmaceutical company Amgen after 25 years. Watson-Meinke has been flying for over 30 years. When she comes to Reno, she doesn’t often wander too far north of Interstate 80 when flying.
“They say I got my blood flying from my dad,” she said during Thursday’s media day. “He had a plane when he was little. He was an Air Force fighter pilot for 20 years.
She started taking flying lessons to become a pilot, but after marrying her husband who was German and moving to her native country, she said the lessons were not available to her there. She started taking fixed-wing flying lessons after becoming interested in balloons while running one morning, she said.

A view north of Reno as the balloons prepare for liftoff. Appeal by Jessica Garcia/Nevada


“I started chasing it, and they always say chasing a ball is like chasing a rainbow: it lands behind a hill and you can never find it,” she said. .
However, she found an American pilot who worked at the same Air Force base as her husband around his birthday and joked that his first flight cost him $100 and the second had cost him $10,000 crossing the German border into Luxembourg. She said it took her about a year to get her pilot’s license with the strong wind landings she had to master at the base in Germany, which are less important in the United States.

Balloons are seen towering over West Reno after a massive ascent on media preview day Thursday. Appeal by Jessica Garcia/Nevada


Today, Watson-Meinke continues to travel with her crew and perform flights up to 10,000 feet, taking care to monitor temperature, flight path, wind speed and landing considerations. Since she cannot control the specific direction, she must remain aware of the weight she is carrying in the basket with this second balloon, a Lindstrand 90A, which she now owns with the number of passengers – up to a maximum of four – density, possible weather conditions and altitudes to maintain level flight.
“We’ve climbed to 10,000 feet, we’re entering controlled airspace where the airliners fly,” she said. “That’s why you’ll see us go up and down. We are looking for different altitudes. The wind blows in slightly different directions. We try to find the diaper we like.

Several balloons landed north of Interstate 80 on Thursday near or west of the Bonanza Casino with crew members helping each other with the landing. Appeal by Jessica Garcia/Nevada


Watson-Meinke’s crew includes Katherine O’Connor, who retired in 2014, said she loves the “cointancy” of the hobby. She works the fan during launches as she is unable to help pull the ropes and does the job that no one usually wants – helping riders complete required paperwork. She recalled different landings or variable weather conditions that even prevented them from launching.
“You think it’s going to be a great day and you come (to the shows) anyway, whether you’re flying or not,” she said. “They tell you if it’s stealable. Today, however, is a beautiful day, and you’ve had so much smoke coming from California. … It’s an adventure you never want to forget.
The crew’s adventures have taken them to California, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico and, of course, Nevada.
“We’re doing Albuquerque, and it’s thousands of balloons…it’s 700 or 800 balloons all inflating at once,” she said. “Here (in Reno), you don’t get lost in the crowd.”
Roberta and Victor Luster, husband and wife crew members of Watson-Meinke from Santa Clarita, Calif., also fly their own Illusterous balloon, a 6-foot-tall Cameron that can carry up to three.
Roberta Luster said she loves that crews help each other from setup to landings at festivals and sharing important moments, toasting each other or adventuring for the first time after a flight. Watson-Meinke trained her own daughter, Erica Luster, who has 45 flying hours and continues to work with other friends and attend festivals. She also said she appreciates the tours in Palmdale and Lancaster, California, Lake Tahoe or Winnemucca where the team is going next week, as well as special invitations to festivals.
“It’s our balloon family,” said Roberta Luster. “God forbid if anything happens to us, we know that (our daughter will) be taken care of. … We did this so Erica could have a future.

Several balloons landed north of Interstate 80 Thursday near or west of the Bonanza Casino with crew members helping each other with the landing. Appeal by Jessica Garcia/Nevada