Aeronaut Mark Prothro and Dianne, his bride of 49 years, didn’t plan on joining the hot air balloon traveling circus, but they’ve been a part of it since the mid 1990s.
“Actually I wanted to get my license first, but I realized I didn’t have the temperament for it,” smiling Dianne Prothro said during the annual media day for the Great Reno Balloon Race at Rancho San Rafael Park on Thursday.
Mark Prothro said with a Southern drawl how he became involved in the sport of hot air ballooning.
“It was 1993 and we were living in Park City, Utah, and had a condo in the mountains that looked down on this small balloon festival. I’m an avid photographer and discovered if I sponsored a balloon I could ride in it and shoot photos. That got me up close and personal.
“I was lucky because there was a balloon instructor in Park City. I was able to get my commercial, not just private, balloon pilot license in 10 straight days. It’s a lot harder now. I had my license, but I really didn’t know how to fly. Park City then was still pretty undeveloped so we’d take off and practice landing on streets and cul-de-sacs. After that we started going to small festivals, and since then we’ve been all around the world.”
Climbing into the smallish basket of a hot air balloon is a passengers first challenge. There isn’t a lot of extra space and you also quickly discover that the “hot” that allows a hot air balloon is no joke. Those left and right burners, operated by a squeeze trigger, are loud and they are toasty.
Prothro, who first flew in the Reno balloon race in 1995 and figures he’s missed maybe one year since, owns five hot air balloons. Our media day ride was onboard the blue, yellow and green adorned “Kachina.”
“Kachina is my favorite but mainly because it’s light and easy to pack up,” he said with a chuckle. “The most recognizable is the frog. All the kids instantly remember the frog.” The Prothro’s own five hot air balloons – “Gizmo” based on a character from the 80’s film “Gremlins,” “Pumpkinhead” and the aforementioned “Hopper T Frog.”
Prothro, whose piloting demeaner matches the calming sensation of floating through the air in a balloon, explained to his passengers (one of the festival volunteers and myself) that our job was to help him watch for other balloons, trees and power lines.
“Even if they’re obvious and you think I’ll see them, please point them out,” he said.
Our task was minimized on this day however owing to a lack of breeze. In two trips up and down we traveled laterally perhaps 500 yards. A little more breeze and we could end up in Sparks, South Reno or Verdi.
“We love coming here and flying in Reno is a joy, but it’s a tough place because of the topography to chase without help from someone local” Dianne Prothro said.
I had the sense that they’d ended up in some interesting spots in the past and the chase truck and trailer took a while to track them down.
Fortunately, they enjoy it enough that Reno is still on the Prothro’s schedule. “We used to do 12 or so festivals a year but now we do maybe five. My favorite is in Eastern France in a town called Mats. It’s fairly rural and perfectly flat countryside, and you can fly 15 or 20 miles in any direction on the compass.
Plus, the French are a little more liberal and we can kind of do what we want. We were in the air once and a low fog bank rolled in. It was a little spooky but we knew if we descended slowly there weren’t a lot of obstacles.