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‘There’s nowhere to go but up’ at the 39th annual Teton Valley Balloon Rally

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The 39th annual Teton Balloon Rally got underway in Driggs Thursday. | Courtesy Virginia Symons

DRIGGS – Dodgy weather prevented the second day of the annual Teton Valley Balloon Rally in Driggs from taking place early Friday morning.

EastIdahoNews.com was among the limited number of spectators allowed on the field where the ballons typically take off from. Attendance is limited this year due to the coronavirus outbreak, which means spectators are not allowed on the field while balloons are in the air. Facemasks are mandatory.

“Our pilots like to say they would much rather be on the ground wishing they were in the sky than the other way around,” Event Director Virginia Symons tells EastIdahoNews.com. “When we’re not in the midst of a global pandemic, we still try to have a field day and create a fun experience. That wasn’t an option this year.”

Since Friday’s rides were canceled, those who purchased tickets can receive a refund by responding to the email they received at the time of purchase.

Days three and four of the rally are expected to proceed as planned Saturday and Sunday, weather permitting. Tickets are nearly sold out, Symons says.

The four-day event is held every year in the days leading up to the Fourth of July. It’s typically held in the early morning hours because that’s when weather conditions are most ideal for ballooning. Breakfast is available for guests as they watch the balloons take off.

“Spectators have free reign of the field. They oftentimes will end up helping pilots put their balloon in the air and they really have the opportunity to get up close and personal, which is an extraordinary experience,” Symons says.

The cost of a balloon ride is $300 per person and it generally lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour.

How ballooning became hot

Courtesy Virginia Symons

The sport of hot air ballooning has been around for centuries. Balloon Meister Margaret Breffeilh says the first known flight happened in 1763, but it didn’t become a popular leisure activity until the 1970s. Today, balloon pilots are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to have a license.

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Breffeilh has piloted balloons for the last 15 years. She got her start as a member of her uncle’s chase crew in Jackson. A chase crew assists the pilot in inflating, launching, landing and deflating the balloon.

“I started to realize that it was a magical and beautiful thing to incorporate into your life,” Breffeilh says. “It draws focus in a way that’s really quite fascinating and you get to be involved with nature on a personal level.”

In addition to completing ground and air training, Breffeilh says knowledge of meteorology and maps are necessary to be successful, along with good decision-making skills.

“On a basic science level, it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years,” Breffeilh says. “Hot air goes up, cool air goes down and wicker baskets are ridiculously resilient. It’s proven to be safe time and time again. It’s as safe as the decision-making of the pilot who’s flying it.”

Balloon rally beginnings

The Teton Valley Balloon Rally has been drawing crowds for the last 39 years. Fred Reed, the founder of the Driggs-Reed Memorial Airport, hosted the first event in 1982.

Attendance reached an all-time high in 1986 when the Teton Valley Businessmen’s Association brought in more than 20 balloon pilots for the event.

“Anheuser Bush became a high-level sponsor at that point,” Symons says. “It really transformed Teton Valley from a sleepy agricultural community into a tourist destination.”

The Chamber of Commerce opted to discontinue the event in 2012, and that’s when Symons and Breffeilh took over. Since 2015, Symons says the balloon rally has been the largest fundraiser for a scholarship fund for high school students interested in becoming hot air balloon pilots.

“Our goal is to bring a little more youth into ballooning,” Symons says. “The industry, overall, is an older demographic.”

Though inclement weather sometimes forces them to keep the balloons grounded, Breffeilh says keeping people safe is the number one priority.

“I want to keep everybody safe so that we can continue to share such a beautiful thing with everybody,” she says. “(Ballooning) makes you realize how lucky you are to be alive and to be able to see the beauty of our planet from different angles.”

The Teton Valley Balloon Rally runs through Sunday, July 5. It begins at 6 a.m. at the Teton County Fairgrounds. Visit the website or Facebook page for more information.

Courtesy Virginia Symons
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