(Helen)- The 51st Helen to the Atlantic Hot Air Balloon Race & Festival begins Thursday and runs through Saturday in Helen.

With two distinctions, Helen, Georgia, carries the banner for the South’s oldest balloon race and the United States’ only long-distance balloon race. All, of course, is contingent upon the weather conditions. This year marks the 51st year for the Helen to the Atlantic Balloon & Festival in Helen, Georgia.

“Look up! You will be amazed at what you see!” Catherine Cleiman of the Helendorf River Inn, Suites & Conference Center said excitedly.

Cleiman organizes the Helen-to-the-Atlantic Balloon Race every year.

“It all started with Pete Hodkinson and other local visionaries, who came up with the concept back in 1974. We start here in Helen and the first to cross I-95, anywhere between Maine and Miami, is the winner!”

The race runs from Helen, GA, to I-95. The finish line can be anywhere from Miami to Maine. (Helendorf.com)

Not every pilot is involved in the race. Cleiman said some come to share their love of ballooning. The race usually takes about two days, with the shortest distance to I-95 being 225 miles.

“It has been done in one day,” Cleiman added. “There will be several balloons competing in the race.”

Keep your eyes on the sky!

It is a race of skill and knowledge. The balloon can only go at the same speed and direction as the wind. Pilots know finding the right altitude to give him or her the optimal speed is the best advantage to cross the finish line first.

Cleiman expects around 20 balloons in all. “It all starts with lift off around 7 a.m. on Thursday morning. There will be local flying events on Friday and Saturday.”

If the weather is good, those who want to see the balloons should come around 7:30 a.m. or 6:00 p.m. The balloons will fly for 1 to 2 hours. You can also see them from your backyard. Cleiman emphasizes keeping your eyes on the sky.

The 51st Helen to the Atlantic Balloon Race & Festival begins May 30th through June 1st. (Helendorf.com)

As she looks ahead to this year’s race, Cleiman reflects on the first balloon event in Helen, when she was just a child.

“Balloons had a lot of unique qualities, a lot of notoriety. Decades ago, they were very rare to see. And they thought it would be a great way to advertise and publicize the little tiny, brand new village of Helen.”

Schedule of events

At 7 a.m. on May 30, balloons will ascend en masse at the start of the race. That evening, at 6:30, Helen will host a local balloon event.

Local events will continue daily at 7 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1. No balloon events are scheduled in the middle of the day.

If you want to hop a ride in a hot-air balloon, here’s your chance! Some of the balloonists will be offering tethered rides for a fee, weather permitting.

The launch field is across the river from Cool River Tubing and Helen’s River Park. To enter the field, cross the bridge at Cool River Tubing and turn left. While most balloons will use the launch field, a few may also launch in various places around town.