Smiles All Around: The Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival Takes Flight | Local

ELKO — Residents of Elko woke up to colorful hot air balloons filling the sky early Friday morning, heralding the start of the annual Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival.

A dozen hot air balloons rose from Elko’s parks, floating gracefully above tree-lined streets, whisking families out of their homes before 7 a.m. to greet pilots and passengers.

Those smiles and wondering looks from people of all ages motivate many hot air balloon pilots and crews as they find ways to get up in the sky as often as possible.

Freedom Flight Inc.Luke Cesnik arrived from Caldwell, Idaho with his wife Pam and crew to pilot Freedom Flight Inc.’s balloon. It brings awareness to the more than 80,000 men and women listed as prisoners of war or missing in action in five U.S. military conflicts, including World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Global War on Terror.

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“This is our 33rd year in business,” he said. “We have four balls; three are from Minnesota, and the one I brought is from Caldwell, Idaho.

Cesnik, who retired from the Air Force, said this was his third trip to the Festival, piloting the POW/MIA balloon in 2011 and 2012. He is one of seven volunteer pilots from four balloons who attend about 40-50 events every year.

“We’ve been to six different countries and 42 states and educated people on what POW/MIA means,” he said. “It’s amazing how many 30-somethings can’t tell us what that means.”

In addition to throwing and flying balloons, Cesnik and his team hand out “hero cards” that list POW/MIA stats and balloon crew information. He said they used to call them trading cards until a two-star general told me they weren’t trading cards.

“These are hero cards because we are flying for the over 80,000 heroes who never returned but also for all of their families who are still waiting,” Cesnik said.

Freedom Flight’s board of directors includes a retired two-star general, two retired colonels, and non-veterans. “We’ve been around for 33 years and we’re still going strong.”

Freedom Flight is a non-profit organization that works with all volunteers. All donations go directly to the POW/MIA awareness group.

A certified pilot with commercial, instrument and multi-engine licenses and a flight instruction rating, Cesnik became a certified hot air balloon pilot in 1990.

“I’ve been flying airplanes for 54 years and balloons for 32 years,” he said.

Cesnik said there are similarities and differences between flying fixed-wing aircraft and flying hot air balloons. However, ballooning is “very basic, and ballooning is the safest form of aviation on the face of the Earth”.

The Freedom Flight balloon educates communities about POWs and MIAs, as well as aviation. “Ballooning is a team sport which I think has a wonderful message for people who fly balloons on a regular basis, but of course ours [POW/MIA] is a special message.

“It’s the awareness of what we stand for, but it’s also to educate people about flying and aviation,” he said. “I also like to involve young people.”

Freedom Flight team members Cy and Sundee Hudson traveled from Banks, Oregon to outfit the hot air balloon at the Ruby Mountain Festival. The couple have been on the crew for 38 years, inspired while growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and regularly watched hot air balloons take flight.

“When I was little, someone threw their ball from their lawn into their front yard,” Cy Hudson said. “I was 10 years old. Hot air ballooning has been big in Albuquerque for a long time.

Friday morning’s flight was memorable for Cesnik as he watched his daughter Hannah Hensley get engaged when her boyfriend, Rick Charshafian, proposed during their flight over Elko.

“It was like a dream,” Hensley said of the proposal.

“I loved it,” Charshafian said of the experience. “It’s very quiet up there.”

John Puppo – Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival Security Manager

Hot air balloon enthusiast John Puppo of Reno has participated in the Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival six times as a crew member and became a security guard for the first time this year.

“A friend of mine had a ball, and I wanted to know more, so he finally invited me. I was hooked. It was fun,” Puppo said.

He traveled to Elko, Lovelock, Winnemucca and Albuquerque and made trips to hot air balloon events about five or six times a year. Puppo also teams up “most weekends for someone. I do it quite often. It’s either that or sitting in front of my computer.

Besides getting out of the house, Puppo said hot air ballooning has helped him make new friends.

Pilots and enthusiasts “talk about their own flying experiences — the close calls they’ve had and the fun flights they’ve had. I learned something about how to pilot a balloon, even if I don’t pilot one. I learned what to look out for if I’m part of a crew or chasing a balloon. I learn something every time.”

Watching people’s reactions to a hot air balloon is another benefit of attending events. “Especially children, if it’s the first time they see a ball. Or even adults if it’s their first time in a balloon.

“It’s fun to be able to be a part of giving them that experience,” Puppo said.

Karalyn Mumm – Balloon Meister, and Will and Thomas Vavra

Hot air ballooning is a family event in Karalyn Mumm’s home. She is a pilot and owner of Citrus in the Sky, along with her sons Will Vavra, who pilots the Don’t Tell Mom balloon and Thomas Vavra, the team leader for both balloons.

The family traveled from Reno for the Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival and serves as balloon masters for the 2022 event.

Mumm said she and her family attended the events in Reno and soon began volunteering as a crew member. “I just fell in love with the hot air balloon and the crew and decided I wanted to be a pilot.”

Her children participated in hot air balloon camps, where she also volunteered. From 2014, Mumm earned a student balloon pilot license and purchased a balloon the following year. She became a private pilot and then a professional pilot.

Hot air balloons “make people smile,” Mumm said. “Flying in the sky is amazing, but the cool thing is that for every person we put in the sky, there are hundreds of people who can see us from below.”

“We can smile, and we don’t even fully know it,” she continued. “We are literally here to make people smile. It is the pleasure, the passion and the family atmosphere. That’s what keeps me going, and that’s what got me started.

Will Vavra, 18, started working on his pilot certification four years ago. Two years later, he received his private certificate and, in June, obtained his commercial certificate.

“There’s nothing like flying with your family,” Mumm said. “It gives me the chance to take my kids, see the country and take a summer trip with them.”

Thomas Vavra, 16, said while it can be “unbearably early” to fly, hot air ballooning is fun and allows him to travel and meet new people.

“I connect with the kids and teach them about balloons. said Thomas. “The look of wonder on some children’s faces when they learn to set up balloons, or when they hit the burner and see and feel the control of the fire. Their admiration for doing this is cool to see.

Will Varva said he had attended several hot air balloon camps, but learned the most from the balloon pilots “sitting and talking to the people selected to come to the camps”.

Will added that he hopes to become a hot air balloon instructor one day. “I love to fly. I don’t know exactly what made me want to fly, but I wanted to be a pilot since I started.

“Where I draw my enthusiasm for hot air ballooning is [when I’m] fly over a house and watch a child run around the front yard. See the awe and wonder in the eyes of these children. That’s why I like to fly,” said Will Vavra.

Mumm encouraged the public to see the balloons and, if they land in a neighborhood, to walk and visit.

“Our balloons weigh as much as a car. Approach us carefully, but there’s nothing we love more than telling people about our ball,” she said. “Come and crew. This is the best way to understand the beauty of our planes.

Mumm thanked all Ruby Mountain Balloon Festival sponsors including Safety First Training and Consulting, Shabonya Dutton State Farm, Family Dental Care, Coldwell Banker Excel Realty, Ignite Life Chiropractic, Great Basin Beverage, Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital, The Klub Bar and Grill, Spring Creek Association, The City of Elko, Elko County Recreation Board, and Elko Convention and Visitor’s Authority.