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|Weekend balloon race more than just hot air|
By Leo Honeycutt
Special to The Citizen
At Louisiana Tech, Ryan Richard is a big man on campus.
He's the Director of Alumni Relations, keeping up the team spirit for all things Bulldog.
He knows a lot about keeping up team spirit because ever since he was 14, he's been jumping up early in the morning to watch the dawn from his 7-story-tall hot air balloon, which requires a chase team of at least four others.
"Only real friends will get up for you at 4:30 in the morning!" Richard laughed, but he's got tons of friends after flying for 20 years. They will help him this year as he competes in the Louisiana State Hot Air Balloon Championship in Baton Rouge this weekend, Aug. 7-9. It is free to the public.
The irony is Ryan's dad, George Richard, taught him to fly. Now, he's competing against his dad for the title.
"It's always a challenge flying against my father," Richard said. "We've been flying the same number of years but he gets to fly a lot more often than I do now that I'm growing my family. And practice does make perfect."
Richard leaned in, winked and said, "That said, I'm looking forward to the friendly competition."
George Richard happily takes the challenge.
"He's a good pilot," George Richard said. "There's no question. He was taught by the best, but he took that training and made himself a great pilot. He's a fierce competitor but he'll always be my son."
They won't be alone in the competition.
At Pennington Field in Baton Rouge, with good weather, 38 pilots from all over the United States will be triangulating on targets and off a 30-foot red stick, pilots may pluck thousands in cash if they can reach it.
On the ground, 60,000 shutter-clicking spectators will be on hand over three days watching the multi-colored balloons glide gently over their heads. Each is a front row seat, all free including free parking. Friday and Saturday nights, pilots light up their balloons in a "Balloon Glow," a kaleidoscope of giant, flickering light bulbs.
Also Friday and Saturday, The U.S. Army "Black Daggers" Precision Skydiving Team will hurtle down from 2,000 feet, once before sundown and again at night, wearing sparklers. Finally, the two nights are capped off with fireworks set to music. Live bands perform all afternoon.
Ryan and George Richard, father and son, look at each other and smile. Both intend to be the top balloon pilot in the state by Sunday afternoon.
"It started out as something cool to do and wound up being the best family hobby," Ryan Richard said. "I plan to train my sons, Trenton, 2, and Jacob, six months, just like my dad trained me."
In many respects, Ryan and George have already won.