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Soar to new heights at annual Helen balloon race
The annual Helen to Atlantic balloon race starts today, with balloons lifting off all weekend for tethered flights.
Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race and Festival
7 a.m., 6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
Where: Helendorf River Inn & Conference Center, 33 Munich Strasse, Helen
How much: $10 for a tethered rides; spectators are free
More info: 706-878-2271 or

With about 30 brightly colored hot air balloons, plus pilots and crew members, the 37th annual Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race and Festival is set to launch Thursday morning in Helen.

The long-distance race launches in Helen and finishes at any point on I-95 between Maine and Miami. If a team has not crossed I-95 by 8:40 p.m. Friday, the balloon closest to the interstate is the winner.

About four balloon teams will be competing in the race to the Atlantic and the other balloons — about 25 — will stay behind and compete in other events and offer spectators a chance to take a tethered ride and meet hot air balloon teams, according to Bill Thomas, pilot for the Parrothead Balloon Team.

“So they can follow us in their cars, take pictures,” Thomas said. “The public is welcome and they get to look inside the baskets and ask questions.”

Get there early for the best views of the balloons. Keep in mind if it is too windy or storms are forecast for the area, take-off will be postponed until conditions are good for flying.

Thomas has been a licensed pilot for one year. He’s flown balloons for four years, which became his obsession after years of being afraid of heights.

“I became a crew member for Tarp Head just for fun and the more I crewed for him the more enthusiastic I became. And then I traveled as crew to Albuquerque, N.M., to the Balloon Fiesta and I became obsessed.”

If you can get over your fear of heights, you’ll be rewarded, he said.

“If they’ve never done it, it’s one of the neatest things they will ever do,” Thomas said. “People who are afraid of heights can get over their fear of heights by doing this. It’s not like a roller coaster, it’s definitely a unique experience.”

Catherine Cleiman, general manager of the Helendorf River Inn said the race and festival is a great experience.

“It’s like standing on your back porch,” Cleiman said. “It’s very calm and very peaceful but when the burner is off but when it’s on, it’s loud.

“Sometimes people will ask if you will please land in their yard.”

The Helendorf River Inn has been the event headquarters and sponsor since 1974, and Cleiman has seen many of the balloon races in those years.

“The balloons are transported in a large duffel bag, they will prepare the fabric and get it all laid out and flat,” Cleiman said. “The cold inflation will begin with a large fan ... they get the propane burners pointed into the balloon, so that the air begins to heat up and the envelope begins ascending.”

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