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Hot air junkies hope for better weather

Annual balloon race to the Atlantic continues today

POSTED: June 5, 2009 12:19 a.m.

Helen to Atlantic Balloon Race

Watch as pilots prepare for the annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race.

SARA GUEVARA/The Times

Loida Wright, left, and son Jonathan of Albuquerque, N.M., of the "Chain Gang" balloon team work to inflate their hot air balloon Thursday during the 36th annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race.

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HELEN — Against Thursday's overcast skies, the bright splashes of color provided by a dozen or so hovering hot air balloons were a welcome sight for most visitors.

The day marked the beginning of the annual Helen to Atlantic Balloon Race, but the rainy weather curtailed the launch of the 30 balloons that were planning to take flight.

"There was a lot of cloud cover (Thursday morning). If it was just clouds but no rain, the balloons could have ascended to just below the clouds," said Catherine Cleiman, an organizer for the event.

"But launching in a thunderstorm is too hazardous because thunderstorms can produce their own winds, and any slight wind can toss the balloon about."

If the weather conditions improved, racers expected to launch their balloons tonight or early Saturday morning.

The race, which is unique to Helen, starts in the open fields near the Helendorf Inn headquarters and is a competition to see which pilot can cross Interstate 95 first near the coast. In its 36th year, the competition was slated to begin at 7 a.m. Thursday.

The cut-off time for the competition is 8:40 p.m. today; if no one has reached the interstate by that time, the pilot closest to the finish line is declared the winner.

Despite not being able to launch as planned, many enthusiastic pilots still inflated their balloons to the pleasure of around 100 onlookers.

"It's disappointing that we didn't get to launch (as planned), but that comes with the territory," said Don Edwards, a balloon pilot from Orlando.

Edwards has been driving up from Florida for the past decade to participate in the annual race. In his career, Edwards says he has flown in 30 different states and even internationally in Thailand, Ireland and France. He says the longest distance he's ever gone is 40 miles, and the highest he's ever gone in a balloon is 10,000 feet.

"I've been flying hot air balloons since 1986. When I was younger, my hometown had a hot air balloon rally and I got to go up in one," Edwards said. "After that I said this is what I want to do. I fly full-time now."

Though the number of inflated balloons Thursday were fewer than those in years past, those in the crowd were still pleased with the rainbow-hued spectacle. There was something for everyone, from the purple-and-orange balloon with big white paw prints to one that featured a patchwork of jewel-toned blues, greens and pinks.

"I like the one with the purple flags," said 6-year-old Katie White. "Purple is my favorite color."

Besides the race, organizers have also planned other events for the weekend, such as tethered balloon rides for the public Sunday.

"It's really beautiful out here at night when all of the balloons are inflated," said Jimmie Bishop, who has driven up from Kennesaw for the event for the past three years.

"I've never gone up in one of the balloons before, but if the weather clears up, I hope to ride in one this year."



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