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Balloon race will light up the Helen skies
Annual sprint to Atlantic launches Thursday
A couple of hot air balloons drift over the Chattahoochee River during last year's annual Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race and festival

Thursday: 7 a.m. lift-off for Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race and mass ascension, 6:30 p.m. local balloon events

Friday: 7 a.m. local balloon events; 6:30 p.m. local balloon events

Saturday: 7 a.m. local balloon events, 6:30 p.m. local balloon events, 7:30 p.m. tethered balloon rides for the public, $10 per person

More info: 706-878-2271, or

An annual rite of spring will take to the skies this weekend in the annual Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race.

The race begins at 7 a.m. Thursday, May 31, weather permitting. If it is too windy or storms are forecast, takeoff will be postponed until conditions are better. According to race “Ballonmeister” Tarp Head, there are 25 teams vying for first place.

“They are coming from all over — Florida, Ohio, Alabama, Tennessee and New Mexico,” Head said.

The only long distance hot air balloon race of its kind stretches from Helen to Interstate 95 near the Georgia coast. If no one has crossed I-95 by 8:40 p.m. Friday, June 1, the balloon closest is declared the winner.

The shortest distance is 225 miles and the race usually takes two days. It has been done in one day, though some races have taken as many as four days. Winds often take the balloons southeast toward South Carolina, but some contestants have finished in North Carolina and Savannah.

Although there will be pilots manning the balloons, ultimately the race pits man against nature.

“A balloon can only go the same speed and direction as the wind,” organizers say.

“The pilot must find the altitude which gives (them) the best speed as well as direction toward the finish line.”

Although teams fuel up before the race, their tanks are limited to carrying 40 gallons of propane fuel. Since that amount will only last around four hours, balloons have to land for refueling, which takes a bit of coordination between the in-air crew and their teammates on the ground.

While the competitors are racing toward the finish line, there will be other activities for spectators to enjoy.

Some balloonists will be competing in local events Thursday through Saturday at approximately 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Some allow visitors to assist with inflations, join a chase crew or take tethered rides.

Ten-minute tethered rides will be available to the public around 7:30 p.m. Saturday for $10 per person. Even though the balloons will be tied to the ground, riders will still get a different perspective on things as they float to heights as high as 75 feet in the air.

The Helendorf River Inn & Conference Center is headquarters for the event, as it has been since 1974.

For more information, call 706-878-2271 or visit