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Balloonists pay impromptu visit

South Boston News
Floating through the skies above Buggs Island Lake / September 22, 2021
An impromptu reunion of hot air balloon pilots took place in Clarksville Saturday.

Pilots who traditionally fly during Lakefest were in town for one day, to the surprise of some first-time flyers and early morning risers who witnessed the balloons as they drifted across Buggs Island Lake near Clarksville.

Laurie Donofrio with Coldwell Banker Advantage Realty in Clarksville teamed up with long-time balloon organizer Brenda Farris to organize the surprise visit. Coldwell Banker underwrote the cost of the event, providing money for both propane to fly the balloons and breakfast for the pilots and their crews at Blue Creek Cove.

One of the lucky recipients of a ride was Sarah Jost, a German exchange student. She and her friends from University of Virginia College at Wise were in town to work as crew members for the pilots.

Jost said it was her first time flying in a balloon. She called the flight “mystical and beautiful.”

The psychology major came to the U.S. to study for a semester to experience a new and different culture. She never would have guessed it would include a hot air balloon flight. She expressed gratitude toward the friends from school who included her, and to the pilot who gave her a chance to fly. The entire day reinforced her view of Americans as “incredibly welcoming and kind.”

Now that she has checked off “hot air ballooning” from her “to do” list, Jost hopes to visit New York City and meet more people, especially those living in rural America. “I want to see the everyday things they do because that’s what makes culture interesting.

Ian Leonard, who flies the Hoppy Daze balloon, was Jost’s pilot.

Growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., Leonard said he got his first taste of ballooning when his family signed up to crew for pilots participating in the town’s balloon festival. He was four years old.

Leonard said he loves coming to Clarksville to fly because the pilots and people who support them are “a fun group.” When he’s not flying for fun, the retired Air Force flight engineer runs Piedmont Hot Airline in Mebane, N.C., a hot air balloon company offering balloon rides in the central North Carolina Piedmont.

He said he’s always happy to fly, especially during “prime flyable season, September through November.” According to Leonard the weather is more dependable and of course the scenery is beautiful. He’s already booked for weekend flights through the second weekend in October.

To contact Leonard, find him on Facebook at PiedmontHotAir, or call (910) 489-3730.

It was not a condition for having Coldwell Banker Advantage Realty sponsor the weekend fly-in. However, local Realtor and Clarksville office manager Laurie Donofrio was offered her first ride in a hot air balloon. Her pilot, Reed Basley has been coming to Clarksville for more than 15 years. He helped his daughter earn her balloon pilot license while attending Lakefest several years ago.

Basley said he flies balloons all over Virginia for his company, Island Balloons, but likes coming to Clarksville because “it is fun, and everyone is friendly. There is no pressure.”

Basley brought with him two students enrolled in Averett University’s flight program, Aidan Miller and Wyatt Brown. For them the balloon flight was fun, but the pair hope to become what Basley said were “jet jockeys” — flying large commercial planes.

Both Miller and Brown agreed that flying a balloon was more peaceful and less chaotic than airplanes, but their focus is on planes.

Of course, no weekend flight in Clarksville would have been complete without Bubba Winston. He has been the balloonmeister for Clarksville’s festivals for 28 years. The veteran pilot has been flying since 1985 when he bought a balloon after taking his first flight.

He’s had a pilot’s license — for planes — since 1974.

Flying in Clarksville is very special to Winston because of how the people in the area “treat the pilots. “We’re like family. It’s wonderful that people want to socialize with the pilots and crew. It’s perfect.”

Winston said to those who missed Saturday’s quick flight, don’t fret. He and several pilots will be back in Clarksville for the Chamber of Commerce’s Harvest Days festival on Oct. 2. The pilots are always looking for crews to help inflate the balloons, follow in the chase vehicles, and reload once the flight ends.

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