By: Travis K. Kircher

It's a staple of the Kentucky Derby. Thirty balloons vying for the finish line – and crowds of hundreds to cheer them on.

The Kentucky Derby Festival's Great Balloon Race.

This morning, I hitched a ride aboard AT&T's Yellow Pages balloon, piloted by Brian Beazly – a man who's been flying balloons for 35 years.

"I saw a picture of one when I was in the 7th grade," Beazly said. "I thought it looked like it would be a lot of fun." 

Decades later, Beazly is flying in the Great Balloon Race for the 27th time. After a brief safety lesson, he fires up the burners, and amid cheers, we rise into the sky.  

The ride is smooth – and quiet. The silence broken only by the burners that give us lift and the radio -- that invisible tether that ties Beazly to the balloon crew chasing him below.

High above, there's a lot to see, including flood damage at the Ohio River, homes, deer and even construction workers oblivious to the observers above. We even descend long enough to brush the top of a tree.

"When you're in the air, it's real smooth…The whole time we're up in the air, it's just absolutely still."

Soon, it's time to land. Like other balloonists, Beazly plays his landings by ear, in his words, going where "Mother Nature" – and his crew -- lead him.

A crew that includes Julie Sullivan.

"I am part of the chase team," Sullivan says. "Wayne is our crew chief and I'm kind of the radio person today. We all pitch in and pack up."

"Is it fun?" I ask.

"Oh my gosh, it is the most fun a person can have!" she replies.

They even have some unexpected volunteers: folks like Pat Ruzanka and Emma Johnson, who showed up to help, despite the fact that they are not members of the crew. Both Ruzanka and Johnson say they show up for the Great Balloon Race every year, pick a balloon and chase it.

"It's fun to chase," Johnson says. "Especially if you can find a balloon to help land. There's nothing like quite like standing under a balloon and looking right up into it."

Even a group of young girls holding a sleepover got up early to cheer the landing on.

"We saw this Yellow Pages Balloon so we jumped in the car and came over to watch it land," says Whitney Wickens, their adult chaperone.

"As fast as we could get dressed!" adds one of the girls. 

"Was it cool?" I ask.

 "YEAH!" they shout.

It's a picture-perfect landing on a picture perfect day. The balloon may deflate, but everyone's spirits are – in a word – buoyant.

"When people see a balloon in the sky, everybody's happy," Beazly says. "Everybody's friendly. It's hard to have a frown on your face when a balloon is flying."