Cindy LaVan

Photo By Deidre Pike

Ballooning is a family affair for Cindy LaVan of Sparks. Her husband, John, is her crew chief. Her daughters, 31-year-old Christine and 25-year-old Natalie, pitch in with launches whenever they take a break from university life at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of California at Davis, respectively. LaVan, 49, began getting up and away in her first balloon, Gypsy Rainbow, about 12 years ago. Though she’s been a fixture at the Great Reno Balloon Races for years, LaVan hasn’t quit her day job at General Motors’ parts distribution center. For the LaVans, ballooning is a sport—not a business. “Then it’s not fun anymore,” LaVan says. This year, you can catch LaVan’s balloon, Razzmatazz, flying with a Corbel banner and an antique American flag in keeping with the patriotic theme of this year’s race Sept. 7-9 at Rancho San Rafael Park.

How did you get into ballooning?

The same way almost all pilots do. You go for a ride, and that’s it. You get hooked. A friend, Stan Robertson, said he needed help crewing. He said, “You wanna fly?” I said, “Yeah.” So I flew. I was hooked. It was unbelievable.

So you became a pilot?

Stan was my instructor. I got my first balloon and parked it in the garage. Then I got my license.

Do you see more people getting interested in ballooning?

Yes, especially women. More are involved in piloting, competing for world records. More and more women are finding out that this is not a male sport. Some even say that women may be better at it. We have a sense for the movement of the balloon. So we encourage young girls to get up. People have told me that I’m a role model.

That’s cool.

It really is. We also do a lot of tethered rides. I’ll fly, and when I’m done flying, if I have enough fuel and a big enough area, we’ll give kids rides for free. It’s something that most children don’t have a chance to experience. So we stick ’em in a balloon and take them up 25 or 30 feet. It’s fun to see how thrilled they are.

Do you go to many big ballooning events?

I’ve flown in France, jeez, 10 years ago now. There were about 1,000 balloons from all over the world. It was the largest gathering in the world, and 450 balloons were from the United States. That was the most of any country. Ballooning is really becoming more prevalent.

Where does your balloon’s name come from?

My daughters picked it out from a Serendipity book, that children’s book series. They have the cutest characters.

Like Leo the Lop?

Absolutely. Well, Razzmatazz happened to be a little lamb. He was rambunctious, and he wanted to fly. The girls said, “That’s like you, Mom.” So I said, “All right.” And I let them name the balloon.

How many balloons have you owned?

This is the second.

It’s a pretty big investment.

Most people, when they start out, buy used balloons. Just like when you first get your driver’s license, you buy a used car unless you have tons of money.

So what do used balloons sell for?

It depends on how many hours of use it’s had. Maybe $5,000 to $10,000.

How about a new one?

Around $30,000. And for that, you get the basket, envelope [and] instruments, and that’s about it. You still need to buy the rest: radios, ropes, gloves, fire extinguisher.

And then you buy something to haul it around in.

Sure. Trailers, pick-ups, vans. Some people pay $100,000 for a special custom trailer.

Have you ever experienced a moment of terror up there?

Not that I’d admit to. No, I think we all have, but you don’t want your passengers to know you have this fear. You know all the things that can go wrong. Most of the people who fly [as passengers] don’t have a clue. A couple of times, I’ve been concerned, not for myself or my balloon, but for the passengers. As pilots, our main concern is for the safety of the people in that basket. We’re very careful about deciding when to go up.

How do you make that decision?

Well, a weather briefing is the first thing we do in the morning. At 4 a.m., we call the National Weather Service. We notify them just like pilots do. We ask for briefing in a specific area, and they’ll tell us exactly what it’s going to do.

How high do you get?

Oh, about 1,000 feet. We don’t go that high usually. If it’s windy, sometimes we take the balloon higher. But normally, about 500 to 1,000 feet, especially for city flying. Up at Prosser, we get to 2,000 or 3,000 feet.

What do you think about at 3,000 feet?

Actually, I’ve flown at 10,000 feet above the ground. It’s amazing. You’d be surprised what you can see on a clear day. And the movement is not like an airplane. It’s very calm, very peaceful, still. No matter what people think, you cannot swing these balloons. It’s always stationary in the space it’s in. You don’t get that elevator sensation. The only movement you feel is on take-off or landing.

That sounds incredible.

It is. First-timers are amazed at how quiet it is, except for the occasional burn. You can hear people talking on the ground. Sometimes I fly over people and say, "Hi. Good morning," and they get all excited. "You can hear us!"