Balloonist drifts to victory at Reno race |

Balloonist drifts to victory at Reno race

by Kurt Hildebrand

It didn’t take a direct hit for Gardnerville balloonist Gary Peterson to float away with first place in the Hare and the Hound competition at the Reno Balloon Races.

Peterson, whose balloon Patriot was sponsored by Starbucks, said he was sixth closest on the first day of the race and seventh on the second.

But with no one else placing that close on both days, he came out on top.

“That’s not unusual,” he said. “The people who get to the target consistently are almost always right on the money.”

This is Peterson’s third year flying in the Reno race, which requires at least 100 hours of pilot and command experience and a commercial pilot’s license.

The retired Los Angeles firefighter said he has been ballooning for about eight years since his partner at Silver State Roofing Materials, Dick Clark, introduced him to it.

“Starbucks was the sponsor,” he said. “They are a great bunch of people. They’d never sponsored a balloon race before. I flew almost 15 people, including a bunch of their executives and district managers. They had great fun.”

The hare and the hound competition begins with one balloon going first. Wherever the hare balloon lands, organizers place a big X and competitors try to get the closest to the target with a bean bag.

Flying a balloon isn’t all drifting along with the breeze. Balloonists require a pilot’s license to fly, which means taking a written and practical test.

“I took the same kind of test a 747 pilot takes, it is just a different category of aircraft you’re certified to fly.”

On passing the tests, new balloonists may fly with family and friends, but not charge for flights.

“In order to take passengers for hire, you have to be a commercial pilot, which takes 35 hours of flight instructor, another written examination and a flight with an examiner.”

But once through the gauntlet, balloonists become both pilot and instructor, which is unique among aviators, Peterson said.

Peterson flew ultralights for about 10 years before he started ballooning. An ultralight is a single-seat aircraft that weighs less than 254 pounds.

“Flying an ultralight doesn’t require a license,” he said. “The FAA says that if you want to kill yourself you can’t take anybody else with you. But single seat aircraft are still subject to the rules of the road.”

He said both he and his son flew ultralights, but he wanted to be able to share the fun.

“It was a lot of fun, but you can’t share the experience with anyone,” he said. “I’m a social animal and enjoy people.”

Peterson said Clark was his ballooning instructor. He said he enjoys being in the air and ballooning allows him to bring people with him.

“It is a unique experience,” he said. “I’ve had kids as young as 3 and I gave a lady a balloon ride for her 100th birthday.”

The flier said he’s not out to make money as a balloonist, but that he doesn’t have a problem taking fares.

“I can be had, but I don’t go out to seek business,” he said. “I use the balloon for a lot of charities and stuff. It is fun to do and I’m glad to help. I’ve ruined a lot of hobbies by turning them into businesses.”

His next flight is Sunday where he is doing a golf ball drop at D’Andrea Golf Course for the Builders Association of Northern Nevada.

Peterson has lived in Carson Valley for 22 years.

— Kurt Hildebrand can be reached at or 782-5121, ext. 215.