Casi Jai Blalock, 5, runs around in a field to get her extra energy out while waiting in line to ride in a hot air balloon in Athens, Georgia on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. The Second Annual Above Athens Balloon Festival featured nine tethered balloons that visitors could ride, food trucks, a beer garden, a business expo, and children's activites.(Photo/Taylor Gerlach)

The distinct whoosh of burners being lit as nine multi-colored hot air balloons lifted above the ground in unevenly spaced intervals punctuated the calm, 90-degree air during the second annual Above Athens Balloon Festival.

Set against a blue sky marred occasionally by a few clouds, the hot air balloons gracefully ascended with passengers who rode in their hanging, wicker baskets for tethered rides from 3 p.m. until around 8:30 p.m. 

The festival was hosted by the Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services Department and included food trucks, such as Holy Crepe, Rashe’s Cuisine and Lil’ Ice Cream Dude, a beer garden with brews and a business expo presented by Athens West Business Association.

Katrina Pattyn, owner of Hyggelig, a hot air balloon at the festival, discussed a feeling of awe and joy at the second annual festival. 

Pattyn fell in love with ballooning in 1978 after riding with some family friends, and was able to revive her passion after her husband, Dale, was stationed at the Air Force base in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The city has been dubbed the “Hot Air Balloon Capital of the World” thanks to its annual, 9-day International Balloon Festival which will take place Oct. 5-13 this year.  

The couple bought their first hot air balloon in 2009 after Dale Pattyn retired from the Air Force, and usually attend 10 events per year and fly for fun on the weekends.

The Pattyns bought their current, rainbow-striped envelope — the part of the balloon above the basket — one year later after the one Dale Pattyn used to get his license needed to be replaced.

“We liked the colors and everything,” Katrina Pattyn said. “[Balloons] should be bright colors and lots of fun.”

The Pattyns brought Hyggelig, a Danish word which loosely translates into the “gathering of family and friends for good times around a warm fire,” according to its Facebook page, to the event last year which only had five balloons and had a “much bigger crowd” than the city was expecting.

Kevin Peppers, his wife, Angela, and their two children were also among those spending their Saturday at the festival. However, Kevin Peppers was much closer to the action — in fact right in the middle of it— than most. 

 A self-proclaimed “balloonatic,” Kevin Peppers worked as part of the hot air balloon crew on the field where Hyggelig was tethered. He worked to direct customers to the hot air balloons, help hold down the baskets as riders got into and out of them and helped replace 15-gallon propane tanks as the day wore on.

Kevin Peppers was first exposed to the hot air balloon business while working for a company which booked reservations for hot air balloon pilots. Even after finding another job, he kept in contact with many pilots and eventually got connected with Katrina and Dale Pattyn and has developed a passion for the high-soaring “gentle giants.”

“[Hot air balloons are] huge. They’re massive and they’re intriguing and there’s so much science behind them with the lift and the weather and all of that,” Kevin Peppers said. 

He now works with hot air balloon crews “as often as [he] can, but not often enough” — every free weekend, according to Angela. 

Families pushed children in strollers, carried them strapped across their chest or held onto the hands of older children whose faces were painted into pink butterflies and black and white skeletons.

One of these such parents was Sherzine McKenzie, a psychologist in Athens, who attended the festival with her 8-month daughter, Zaidie. McKenzie moved to Athens about two years ago from Houston and said she was surprised at the number of events which happen throughout the week. 

While McKenzie said she thought Zaidie would have enjoyed the experience of the hot air balloon because she “likes to be higher and see everything,” she was hesitant because of her young age.  McKenzie herself rode in a hot air balloon before while studying abroad in Madrid in the summer of 2006. 

“In another life I wanted to be a skydiver and this was as close as I’ll get to it,” McKenzie said. “Initially it was terrifying going up but once you get up there and you know there’s something solid under [your] feet it is just like breathtaking.”

The best part of ballooning for Katrina Pattyn is sharing the experience with others like McKenzie, and the other hundreds of people who attended the festival. 

“There’s nothing else like it, it’s the oldest form of flight,” Katrina Pattyn said. “The very first balloon flight took place in 1783 in France [and] not a whole lot has changed since then.”

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