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A reason to love hot air

Balloon racers fired up, filled up for annual sprint to the coast

POSTED: June 1, 2011 5:36 p.m.
SARA GUEVARA /The Times

A hot air balloon takes off into the morning sky during last year's annual Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race. This year's event begins today, with the festival running through Sunday.

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The 38th annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race and Festival lifts off today.

Festivities will kick off at 7 a.m. today when about 30 balloons take to the skies over Helen, barring inclement weather.

Six to 10 balloons will take part in the race that starts in Helen and ends when the first balloon crosses over Interstate 95 anywhere between Maine and Florida.

One of the competitors is Daryl Tatum, who owns Balloons Over Georgia in Cumming, who knows well the preparations, logistics and danger of the race.

According to Tatum, it's all about the wind, which balloonists would like to see coming from the west and northwest.

"The race is pretty intense," Tatum said. "We don't normally do a lot of flying in the middle of the day just because of the heat. You have downdrafts and such that really make it a challenge to fly during the middle of the day.

"When we learn to fly, we're typically told not to balloon in the middle of the day. The controllability of the balloon gets a lot harder."

Tatum said the Helen to Atlantic is the only long-distance race in the country. He said balloon flights usually only last for a few hours over smaller distances.

"The Helen race is not like any other in ballooning. There's just no other opportunity like it. It's just so much fun," Tatum said.

The balloons can only carry about four hours worth of fuel, so ground crews follow the racers and must locate them to refuel quickly.

The refueling is the "make or break" point for teams, according to Tatum. The key is to minimize midday landings and keep refueling time to a minimum.

This means ground crews have to really be on their toes, staying as close to the balloons as possible and getting there quickly once they touch down.

"For them, it's just as much fun, and just as challenging," said Tatum, whose crew includes six people.

According to the event's website, www.helenballoon.com, the shortest distance to I-95 is 225 miles and generally takes about two days to cover.

Around 6 tonight, balloons not competing in the race will take part in local events and provide entertainment to the festival attendees. The public can enjoy tethered balloon rides, champagne flights over the local mountains, take part in a race chase crew and assist with balloon inflation.

Ballooning activities are scheduled for 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

For more information about flight times and locations, contact the Race Headquarters at the Helendorf Inn at 706-878-2271.



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