Dan Hoeler of Louisville piloted the birthday cake balloon, which was sponsored by Hilliard Lyons in celebration of its 150th anniversary. He has participated in 13 or 14 of the races here in Danville and keeps coming back because "it's a lot of fun. It's a community event."
At least one first-timer agrees. "It's exciting to fly in new areas of the country," said David Troutman, a pilot from Louisville. "This is one of the nicest events we've been to. The people are really nice."
Troutman's parents were hot air balloon pilots when he was a child, and he has recently started flying himself. "It's a family activity," he says. Along with his parents, wife Shannon and four-year-old twin sons Christopher and Ryan get in on the action.
"When my dad blows (the flame), I don't get scared. And now I'm ready to fly," says Christopher.
Friends Charlie Hurst and Chris Spalding, both of Louisville, often fly with Troutman. In fact, it was Hurst who actually taught Troutman to fly.
According to Tom Lee, a pilot from Louisville who drove the chase vehicle for Spalding, most of the pilots have commercial licenses, but "I don't think any of us can make a living at this."
Balloon chasing is a part of the sport that many people don't know about; when the balloon lands, they're often far from where they started, so the chasers come pick them up and help pack up the balloon. Communicating via radio, the pilot tries to tell the people in the chase vehicle what direction the balloon is headed.
The chase team for David May, a balloonist from Danville, included friends and family who all came out to have fun and lend a hand. Driving curvy backroads and checking with May on the radio, the chasers eventually found their way to the field where he set down the balloon.
Nancy McMurry originally volunteered to be a chaser, but ended up going up in the balloon with May along with fellow passenger Jessie Couch. "It was wonderful. The land just looked like a quilt, with all different colors of green," McMurry said when she was back on solid ground.
May has been flying on and off since 1974 when he joined the Hot Air Ballooning Club at the Air Force Academy. "It's just a really neat, different kind of sport ... When you look up in the sky, it's like being the cloud," he says.
While there were many people there to see the balloons go up, not many were there to see them land. They drew attention, of course, when they landed by houses or in subdivisions on the outskirts of Lancaster, but not many saw the chasers meet the balloons in the fields and pack up. Even fewer saw the final part of the flight. The pilot, passengers and chasers lifted their glasses in a traditional champagne toast, celebrating another safe and successful Great American Hot Air Balloon Race.