HELEN — Piloting hot air balloons has taken Bud Person all over the world. This week it brought him and his wife Wendy from Gainesville, Fla., to the alpine village of Helen.
"I've been in every state in the country flying balloons, except for Hawaii," he said Thursday morning while floating above the North Georgia mountains.
The city is hosting the annual Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race, which brings balloonists from across the country. The serious racers took off near 7 a.m. Thursday as onlookers watched, snapping photos.
They'll fly toward Interstate 95 and whoever is closest or actually crosses the interstate on Friday wins.
James and Milinda Giddy of Arab, Ala., have been coming for seven years to watch the race, after first meeting in Helen in 2002.
"The first time we came and saw the balloons, we just fell in love with the event," James Giddy said, holding his son Joshua, 21 months.
It was love at first flight for Ben Drennan, a member of the Persons' crew who helps fill the balloon with air and get it off the ground.
"My first time I was hooked," he said.
"I knew from then, OK, yeah, I'm going to do this. There's no way I can't. It's just so peaceful."
The hot air in the balloon controls the elevation, and winds at different elevations travel in different speeds and directions, Drennan said. So the flight is all about catching the right winds.
And Bud Person is an expert at it.
Person has been flying for 29 years, some of that commercially for Disney. He flew specially-shaped Disney balloons during the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Canada, and across the world at different parks. He's also flown outside Normandy, France.
"That was drop-dead gorgeous," he said.
He first got involved with balloons when someone asked him to come crew for a pilot. After helping out, someone asked him to get in the basket.
"I had a great flight. We drank a whole bunch of Champagne after the flight. And I'm going, ‘I can do this,'" Person said.
Flying is about much more than floating across the countryside, though.
"You keep going back to the same places to see your best friends," he said. "It's really the friendships more than the flying sometimes."
Drennan echoed that sentiment.
"It's a wonderful chance to get together," he said. "And you put on a good show for the people, but for us it's kind of like a family reunion."
Of course, the traditional after-flight Champagne doesn't hurt.