Up, Up and Away

Helen Hot Air Balloon Race

Photos courtesy of the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival

There’s a reason – in fact, more than one – that the picturesque community of Helen, Georgia is the state’s third most-visited city. Hint: one of those reasons will take off at the end of the month.

From May 30 to June 1, the town will be the site of the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival – the South’s oldest balloon event and the country’s only long-distance hot air balloon race.

A Helen businessman, the late Pete Hodkinson, started the event in 1974, and he founded the race on two guiding principles. First and foremost, the people of Helen, who transformed their lumber town into a Bavarian-style village in the 1960s, believe that their community is the center of their world. And, harkening back to the days of Christopher Columbus, the Atlantic Ocean was considered the “edge of the Earth.”

Launch & Land

About 25 brightly colored hot air balloons, piloted by race competitors and local flyers, will fill the sky in a mass ascension at 7 a.m. Thursday, May 30, weather permitting, as the race gets underway. If conditions are too windy or if storms are forecast, then the takeoff will be postponed until the weather is favorable.

The majority of the balloons will take off from the launch field that is located across the Chattahoochee River from Cool River Tubing and the city’s River Park. However, a few balloons may launch from various places around town.

the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & FestivalWhile the race begins in the Alpine village in the North Georgia mountains, the finish line is Interstate-95. The actual end point is fluid, however, as balloons can reach their destination anywhere between Maine and Miami. The winner is the first person to cross I-95, or whoever is ahead at sunset on Friday, May 31.

The shortest distance to the interstate is 225 miles, and the race usually takes two days. Although the race has been done in one day, some have taken as many as four days.

As the competition to the Atlantic continues, other balloonists will compete in local events beginning Thursday evening around 6:30 p.m.

Local flying events also will take place on Friday and Saturday around 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. each day, weather permitting, for one to two hours. About 20 balloons will fly locally.

No ballooning activities take place during the middle of the day. Dawn or two or three hours before sunset – the cooler hours of the day – are the best times for balloons to take off.

Launches and landings also are easier during these hours because winds typically are light.

Helen Hot Air Balloon RaceFlying at these times also avoids thermals, which are vertical air currents caused by ground heating that makes it more difficult to control the balloon. In extreme circumstances, the downdrafts associated with strong thermals can exceed the ability of a balloon to climb and force it into the ground.

Involvement & Entertainment

The balloon race challenges the skills of the pilot and crew as they have to navigate the mountains, Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest and Unicoi, Smithgall Woods, Moccasin Creek, Vogel, Tallulah Gorge and Amicalola Falls state parks that surround the village.

However, the bird’s eye views of treetops, vast woodlands, streams, waterfalls and wildlife make the flights worthwhile.

Helen Georgia Balloon RaceIn addition to the overhead views, attractions of ballooning include the exceptional quiet (except when the propane burners are firing) and the lack of a feeling of movement. Since balloons move with the direction of the wind, passengers don’t feel the wind other than brief periods when the balloon climbs or descends into air currents of different direction or speed.

A balloon can only go the same speed and direction as the wind, so the pilot must find the altitude that gives the best speed and direction toward the finish line.

The race also is a crew event as the balloons are limited to 40 gallons of propane fuel – enough to last four hours – so they must land for refueling. If the crew is not at the landing site immediately with fresh tanks, the balloon loses valuable time while the pilot and crew try to find each other.

The public can get involved in the race by assisting with the inflation of the balloons or by joining a chase crew that follows a balloon.

Helen also offers many sights and attractions for visitors when the balloons are not flying. These activities include river tubing, hiking to waterfalls, going on a picnic or a buggy ride, visiting an amusement park, playing golf, panning for gold, exploring museums or shopping.

If You Go:

What: Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival

When: Thursday, May 30 – Saturday, June 1

Where: Helen, Georgia

More Info: helenballoon.com

By Morgan Davis