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Pilots share 'floating without a care' at balloon festival

Posted May 22, 2015

After a decade of work with hot air balloons, Jennifer Rees recently qualified as a pilot.
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— To get dozens of hot air balloons in the sky for the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest, it takes good weather and hard-working crews.

"Ballooning is a magical force to be involved with. It turns everybody into kid," said pilot John Petrehn.

The national ballooning champion and two-time world champion joins 40 other pilots ready to race this weekend from Zebulon's Bennett Bunn Plantation.

At dawn Saturday through Monday, balloons will take off from Bennett Bunn to ride the wind.

"When we take off and fly, we become part of the wind. We travel with the wind. It’s calm and relaxing," Petrehn said.

There is no guarantee where the trip will end or whether the landing will be smooth.

"We do have some idea, but not exactly where we’re going to end up," Petrehn said.

The topography of the Triangle presents a new challenge for him.

"Coming from Texas, where it’s been doing nothing but raining or 90 degrees and steamy, I was excited to get here – the trees, the hills," he said.

Jennifer Rees, newly qualified as a pilot, describes the ride as "floating without a care."

"It's just you and the basket floating through the air," she said.

Rees, a nurse, has been training to pilot a balloon for nearly a decade. She has been part of a balloon crew, even working her way to crew chief before finally sticking the landing to earn her pilot certificate two weeks ago, just two days shy of her 49th birthday.

It was the realization of a life-long dream.

"I wanted to accomplish it before I turned 50," she said. I was getting to the point where I don't want to always be a crew chief, I don't want to be a crew, I want to fly!"

Rees said a balloon landed in her backyard when she was a child and inspired her to fly.

"It wasn't the prettiest landing, but I accomplished the task," she said. "I was so excited that I was able to do it."

Rees will be back on the crew this weekend at the WRAL Freedom Balloon Fest, working with the 5 O'clock High balloon team.

All balloon activities are dependent on the weather, and conditions are expected to be perfect for Friday's opening ceremony, at 5 p.m. Tethered rides and balloon "glow" events are scheduled Friday evening at two locations – Bennett Bunn Plantation, 1915 Old Bunn Road in Zebulon, and Spring Forest Road Park, 4203 Spring Forest Road in Raleigh.

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