For the last three years, our town has played host to the Pahrump Balloon Festival. Last February (2017), over 30 pilots and their balloons descended upon Pahrump for an exciting weekend of flying in one of the best areas for hot air balloons in the country. They take off from Petrack Park in the heart of town and can be seen from almost everywhere in the valley once they get airborne. Each year, the festival has grown, and the number of balloons participating has increased as well as the number of onlookers. Next year, the town is planning for even more.
Since this is a relatively new activity to Pahrump, there are some things that people who are wanting to see and participate in the fun should know before coming to the event. We’ve compiled some of these ideas so you can plan ahead and enjoy the festivities even more.
Here are nine tips on how to attend a balloon festival:
- First and foremost, you need to arrive very early. Get to the park at 6:00 AM so you’ll know if the balloons will be flying. They usually fly in the early morning hours before the wind starts. In general, the best winds for a flight are between 4-6 mph. Anything ten or more mph will keep the balloons on the ground. The pilots watch the forecast for any wind issues ahead of time. Rain can impact the flights as well.Before lift-off, a helium filled weather balloon is released, and the Flight Captain and pilots watch its direction, speed, and actions to determine where and if the big balloons will fly. Once it’s determined it’s a go, the pilots and crew head for their equipment, and start laying out all the parts to get ready for take-off.The balloons are usually ready to start taking off about 6:30 AM. Spectators are encouraged to bring your own chairs for comfort and be sure to bring a camera. The magnificent colors of the balloons show up beautifully against the blue skies and make for excellent photographs.
- Volunteer your services. If you want to become involved, this is where you can help. Chances are you’ve heard the adage “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it also takes a village to raise a balloon. Pilots are often looking for volunteers to help crew and ready the envelope (the fabric of the balloon), basket, lines, and burner for departure. Experience is not necessary. You can sign up ahead of time to help. Or the morning of the flight, you can let it be known you’d like to volunteer. You ‘ll be asked to sign a release form. Then the pilots will instruct you on what they want you to do, how to do it, where to stand, and where not to stand. In some cases, when you help crew for a pilot, they’ll invite you along for a ride.
- Be prepared for the cold. Whether you decide to help with the launch or not, be sure to dress warm, preferably in layers so you can shed them as the sun comes up. We suggest you wear a hat and bring gloves. The festival takes place in February, and it can be quite chilly in the early morning hours. If you help with the launch and handle any of the lines, not only will the gloves keep you warm, they will protect your hands from the rope. You’ll want to bring sun glasses too, so you don’t miss a thing looking up in the sky.
- Sponsor a balloon for added benefits. If you don’t want to crew, but you still want to go for a flight, you can sponsor a balloon, which comes with additional perks such as balloon rides. There are different levels of sponsorships to help support the event. Contact the Pahrump Valley Chamber of Commerce office at (775) 727-5800 for information on how to become a sponsor. But be aware, mother nature calls the shots on whether any balloons will be flying on a particular day. So, don’t be too surprised if you don’t get to go up.
- How to watch after take-off. Once the balloons take off, you can watch them from the park or follow them as they cross the valley. The chase cars keep track of them and follow them as they tour the area. The only control the pilots have of the flight is whether the balloon goes up or down. They must watch the winds and understand how the winds can change as you change altitude. They keep their focus on potential places to land as they determine when it’s time to bring the flight to an end.
- Chase cars bring riders back to the park. The chase car will be there to pick up any passengers and take them back to the park. Or maybe they’ll have other passengers with them who plan to go on a ride. In that case, the passengers switch places, and the balloon goes up again. The chase car continues to follow its path on the ground and will meet them when they come down at the end of the ride. The passengers can help deflate and fold up the balloon, pack the basket, and load everything back into the trailer to head back to the park, ending an exciting, fun experience.
- Tethered rides available weather permitting. If you don’t wish to get up at the crack of dawn, tethered rides are scheduled during the day at the festival. Be sure to check the itinerary on the Chamber’s FaceBook page or website. Two or three balloons will be inflated and secured from the ground to take passengers up in the air for a feel of what a balloon ride would be like. But again, these rides are totally dependent on the weather. If there’s too much wind, they cannot launch either.
- Attend the evening glow. On two of the evenings, again weather permitting, they hold evening glows. The balloons are inflated to stand upright but tethered down, so they don’t take off. Music is played as the balloons alternatively fire up their burners to the rhythm of the song. Volunteers can help launch the balloons for this event as well. Or you can come to Petrack Park and watch from the sidelines as the multitude of colors light up in the dark of night.
- Have fun! Not every town has the pleasure of experiencing a balloon festival right in their own backyard. Participating pilots say Pahrump is a great place to fly. So, enjoy the event and take advantage of what it has to offer. Follow the posted itinerary of events and have fun.
The Crewing Experience is Fun and Fascinating
If you are fortunate to become part of the crew for a balloon, you’re in for a treat. The pilots are experts and quite patient. They’ll give you directions, and all you need to do is what they ask. Any questions you have, they’ll gladly answer. Some people will be handling the lines. Others will be laying out the fabric while the pilot gets the basket and burner in place.
Before the burner is lit, large fans are positioned at the mouth, or skirt, of the balloon and they start to expand the balloon with air. This large fabric bubble inflates and grows before your eyes. The crew helps keep lines in place and makes sure the envelope is sealed, so air does not escape. They also keep a watch out for other interferences in the area. Once the balloon is filled to a certain point, the burner takes over.
As the burner is lit, the envelope expands rapidly with hot air. There are usually two people holding the mouth open so the air can enter. Once the balloon begins to fill, those handling the ropes will help walk it to its upright position and keep it from interfering with neighboring balloons.
Going for a Hot Air Balloon Flight
When the balloon is upright and filled appropriately, the pilot and riders climb on board. Passengers need to be fit enough to climb into the basket. As you board, the pilot will ask you to stand along the edge and watch the pilot do his or her thing, and up you go. If you’ve never experienced it before, it’s a little scary at first as the ground grows distant below you and the people left behind become smaller and smaller. If you’re afraid of heights, this may not be an event for you.
It’s a fairly slow ascent into the wild blue yonder, and pretty soon you’re at the mercy of the wind. The pilots control the altitude with the flame and watch the instruments telling them which way the wind is going to take them. It changes depending on the surroundings and how high off the ground you are. The one thing our pilots did ask us to do was help keep an eye out for power lines and other potential obstacles.
Once you’re up in the air, it’s amazing how quiet things are. There’s no engine noise, just the sound of the wind passing by and the occasional burst of the burner firing the flame to keep the balloon up in the air. The view is stunning as you can see for miles. You’ll witness other balloons both above and below you, all traveling at approximately the same speed. You’ll get a panoramic look at the town of Pahrump beneath you, and maybe you can finally figure out the layout of some of the roads. You’ll be high enough where everything looks small, yet not too high as to not recognize buildings and landmarks. Check out the lay of the land and gaze at the surrounding mountains. You’ll gain a whole new perspective of our town.
When it’s time to come down, the pilot will guide the balloon to an open space that he or she has kept in sight. The parachute valve, which is located on the top of the envelope, is opened which allows hot air to escape in a controlled manner. The balloon makes a slow descent to the targeted landing area.
The chase car and crew members will be there to meet the flight and help with the landing by holding the balloon down as everyone gets off. Passengers will disembark as instructed to keep the basket balanced. The air continues to escape from the top of the balloon and eventually lies back down on the ground with the crew helping guide the way. The basket and balloon are disconnected, the lines are organized, and the envelope is folded properly. Next, it is rolled appropriately to get the remaining air out of the balloon and then it’s ready for storage. The balloon, basket, propane tank and burner all fit securely in the trailer before everyone heads back to the park.
Enjoy the Rest of the Festival Which Lasts all Day
Rides, food booths, arts and crafts, the Pahrump Valley High School rodeo events, and other activities are available as part of the festival. Although the main event of the day is to watch the balloons, there are still things to do after that takes place or in case the balloons can’t fly.
The balloon festival is a special experience. However, you must attend knowing that to see the balloons, you must arrive very early in the morning. You also need to be aware the balloon flights are dependent on the weather conditions. Everyone involved wants the event to take place as planned, but Mother Nature has the last word.