“Up Ship” – the launch command of the ground crew of a lighter-than-air balloon, time-honored from the days of Jules Verne as the aeronauts drop a pennant with a braided rope to sample the wind. The modern Goodyear blimps continue that tradition, dropping a line with the American flag from their tails. We’ll hear it a lot at this weekend as the colorful envelopes fill and open, then rise over Rancho San Rafael.
The early balloon races in Reno started with less-auspicious beginnings as an event to fill the early hours of the Reno Air Races, offering spectators a little diversion while the racers were prepping for the main event. They drew a lot of attention – the propane burners slowly filling the gasbags, that gradually blossomed open and disappeared with their wicker baskets and champagne-swilling aeronauts into the distance in a sort of hare-and-hound race, mostly for fun. The envelopes were less colorful yet more traditional in shape – the logo gasbag shapes, starting with Mr. Peanut and a champagne bottle setting the pace for those. On that first windless morning they didn’t go far, and posed a hazard to the later air racers by blocking course safety escape routes and cluttering up the course with ground support trucks. I’ve tried to pinpoint the year from old air race programs with little luck, but I’d guess this all started about 1973, reader help appreciated.
The next year they were back, in greater numbers and a little more organization, with a few VIP passengers and some sponsored balloons. And problems similar to the year before with the congestion. But the event was catching on and few enjoyed them more than the volunteer workers at the air races – the balloons a pleasant diversion from the noisy race planes. And pilots.
I’m shaky on the year now, but believe it was the third year at Stead that the air race trustees, and I detect the fine hand of Roy Powers in this stunt – “We’ll have a Reno Air Race Zip Code, with a commemorative postmark on one-ounce-max letters, put a shoebox full in each balloon, and put these races on the map!” The U.S. Postal Service went along with that, and official airmail lifted off with each aeronaut.
Unlike the past years, the wind was freaky at launch time, coming from the east, west, north, and south and maybe straight down. Hot air balloons with U.S. Mail aboard drifted from hell to breakfast and the post office minions went postal, their mail, their charge, their duty through rain, sleet, dark of night and Washoe Zephyrs, spread from O’Brien Middle School’s parking lot to the Black Rock Desert. Red, white and blue right-hand-drive mail trucks drove all over the racecourse. Well, not really, but from the squawk on our walkie-talkies that wouldn’t have surprised us.
The event matured, from its early beginnings as a schedule-filler for the air races to a stand-alone weekend, and what a hand the early organizers are due for turning it into one of our valley’s major annual shows. And, for proving that the near-silent rustle of a balloon cleaving the air with the occasional whoosh of the burner, can hold its own with the popularity of Hot August Night’s big-block Chevys, the air race’s V-12 Packard Merlins and Street Vibrations’ Twin-V Harleys. Up ship, aeronauts; we’re glad to see you back again.
And, for the trivia that one can only find in this paper on Saturday mornings, the U.S.-based Goodyear blimps have been traditionally named for racing yachts that have successfully defended the America’s Cup, so decreed the late Frank Seiberling, Goodyear’s 19th century founder, a yachtsman himself, now retired. (Get it?) And, we all know that just as Bill Harrah went to the four corners of the Nevada to get low auto license plate numbers for his fleet, the Goodyear big wheels garnered the lowest tail numbers in American aviation, from N1A through November Eleven Alpha.
© Karl Breckenridge 2006