Every summer for 46 years before the pandemic, the skies of Georgia have been filled with hot air balloons in a race from the mountains to the sea. The only long-distance race of hot air balloons in the U.S. doesn’t get half the press of the hot air balloon festival that takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, every October, which is a shame. Sure that event is a couple of years older and contains hundreds of
balloons, but for the 20+ balloons that arrive in North Georgia and the brave souls that make the race to the sea every year—the shortest of which is 225 miles—the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival takes tremendous skill. It’s time this time-honored race gets its fanfare.
When adventurer Pete Hodkinson came up with the idea of balloon racing in 1974, he, like many in Helen, believed the mountain town to be the center of the world. It was Hodkinson, after all, who had thought up the idea of transforming Helen from a dying lumber town into the charming Alpine Village that today draws tourists from across the Southeast. A pilot of hot air balloons, Hodkinson realized people were awestruck when they saw him floating above and decided, in another effort to bring visitors to Helen, to begin a ballooning festival and race. Hodkinson took the Christopher Columbus-era notion of the Atlantic Ocean being the “Edge of the Earth” and thus was born the race from the “Center of the World to the Edge of the Earth,” or simply, the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival.
The race began in the mountains and finished with a winner crossing over I-95 first—anywhere between Maine and Miami, where the interstate parallel to the ocean starts and ends. And Hodkinson’s plan worked.
“In the late 70s and early 80s, all three of the TV networks in Atlanta would fly up in a helicopter to cover the balloon ascension and return to the studios for the noon news,” says Cathy Gay Cleiman, organizer of the event, owner of host hotel Helendorf River Inn and ballooning enthusiast since she was a kid. “The helicopters would fly around looking for balloons in the race and show updates of the whereabouts and who was winning. It was quite exciting and new.”
The open-ended finish line of I-95 (due to the wind) could be as short as 225 miles and, if the weather is ripe, completed in a day. But with a slower wind and changing directions, some races have lasted four days and can be quite challenging to pilots and their crews. This year, the 47th race of balloons will be a 2-day competition—either cross I-95 or come closest to it by sundown on Friday, June 4 to be declared the winner.
A RACE OF ENDURANCE
The Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival is the only one of its kind in the U.S. and an invitation-only race. Cleiman and her family of organizers invite 20 to 25 pilots to participate. Although, as she laughs, only those up for “the torture” will compete.
“It’s a grueling event,” she says. “It’s like a NASCAR race except every time a pilot returns to his pit crew he has to descend, his pit crew has to find him, they refuel and then re-inflate the balloon before continuing onto the next lap.”
You see, the hot air balloons cannot simply stay in the air until they cross a finish line. For a balloon to ascend, the air trapped in the envelope (balloon fabric) must be heated in order to rise against the heavier cold air outside.
This requires propane, and each balloon is limited to carrying only 40 gallons of fuel. Those 40 gallons last 4 hours, which means the pilots have to descend to refuel. And their ground crew must be at the ready, following the balloons as closely as they can but restricted to road routes rather than a balloon traveling as the crow flies.
Once leaving Helen, pilots have to navigate with the wind, just as a sailor in the sea. If wind conditions are too fair and no pilot crosses the route in time, the winner of the race is the pilot who is closest to I-95 on the sunset of the second day of the event. (Sunset because flight laws prohibit balloons flying during the dark.)
For Cleiman and her family, it’s an exciting time. The Gay family has owned not only the inn since the first balloon launch but has hosted the event and houses the pilots and crews. Their dedication to the sport of ballooning has earned them recognition for their contributions to the ballooning world by the Ballooning Federation of America.
A FESTIVE ENVIRONMENT
Pilots and their crews will arrive in Helen on June 2, a family reunion of sorts in the tight-knit ballooning community. Before pilots can ascend, they first attend a meeting with the “Balloonmeister,” Tarp Head. “Tarp is in charge of flight ops—weather briefings, obstacles and such,” says Cleiman. “There really is only one way to fly out of Helen so that you don’t wind up in the national forest and have to hike out.”
But Head is more than Balloonmeister. His passion for ballooning led him to design and manufacture round leisure
balloons and oval racing balloons, the latter of which can ascend and descend faster due to their shape. His company, Head Balloons, is one of only five balloon manufacturers in the U.S., and around a dozen envelope manufacturers in the world. He knows a thing or two about racing, as well. Head was winner of the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival in 1979.
For regular Joes who want to witness the flight of the balloons, the festival welcomes visitors to attend launches. Not all pilots participate in the race. Instead, they bring multiple balloons to inflate to the delight of all fascinated by them. Twice a day, weather-permitting, the balloons ascend.
“The best time to inflate and ascend is early in the morning or early in the evening so on Thursday and Friday the balloons will be inflated and lift off around 7 a.m. and then again around the same time in the evening,” says Cleiman. “In between, we invite visitors to enjoy Helen by tubing down the river, wine tasting, gold panning and riding the alpine coaster; it makes for a great couple of days.”
The launch field for the balloons is a half-mile from the hotel, across the river from Cool River Tubing. Guests of the hotel can walk to the field bright and early for the unpacking and inflating of nearly two dozen balloons. (Bring a blanket or folding lawn chair!) But because the best air for ascension is between 6:30 and 7 a.m., you’ll have to be an earlier riser—or consider staying at the Helendorf River Inn. Half of the inn’s 99 rooms will be filled by the teams but the other half is often taken by visitors wanting to be near the action for the festival.
Although Cleiman warns, “This is a festive time to be at the hotel. The pilots have to get up crazy early and as a reunion of friends they stay up late. If you want quiet, you may want to stay somewhere else! We can be a rowdy bunch when we all get together!”
Of course, the inn and the festival will be closely following safety protocols as dictated by the state. Cleiman and Head are closely monitoring the ever-changing regulations and will provide updates on the event at HelenBalloon.com or its Facebook page. But they are hopeful 2021 will bring them back up to the skies.
HELEN TO THE ATLANTIC BALLOON RACE & FESTIVAL
June 3 – 4, 2021
HELENDORF RIVER INN, SUITES & CONFERENCE CENTER
33 Munich Strasse Helen