“One, Two, Three, Four, Five…BURN!” shouted the radio DJ, and all of sudden the skyline was illuminated with
the fiery glow of a dozen hot air balloons aglow in the Texas sky. The crowd up on the hill crackled with camera flashes, cheers went up, and as each balloon randomly fired up their propane burners and lit up the inside of their nylon envelopes. The shapes were mostly the familiar tear drop, but many were built in promotional forms. The biggest of all, called Arky, owned by a large Texas church, had a menagerie of blow up animals circling its massive top, another was a cartoon ladybug, a third had a pirates protruding noggin.
The propane torches gave a gasp with each burn, it was like being around a school of tremendous whales, who make a similar noise with their blowholes. Volunteers strained to keep the giant envelopes from tipping back, each holding the end of a long rope and a second person was manning a back up station in case they let to. Each of the balloons strained against its mooring, tethered to a vehicle yet the baskets moved around, tipping and bucking with extra people needed to keep the pressure on the sides of the baskets.
This festival has been a big part of Plano every September for 32 years. About half the time, as happened tonight, the winds are too high for the balloons to take off. My own balloon ride Friday morning was aborted due to the winds, some pilots were willing to take off, others like mine declined. It’s an incredible site to see so many people a lot of whom have little kids, that are willing to walk over a mile from where they park their cars to enjoy this big festival. Even with the threat of no balloons launching they were there for the corn dogs, and the big turkey legs, and the towering plates of fried potatoes. As night fell, they took their positions up on a hill to await the glow. It did not disappoint, brilliant flashes in side the multicolored balloons.
One attraction that created a long line was a police truck with flashing lights, where kids could get their photos taken sitting in the drivers seat next to one of Plano’s finest. Many others wanted a second shot–Mom or dad posing with the cop about to put handcuffs on them, with a look of mock horror on their faces.
Even when the balloons don’t get airborne, some of the balloon pilots I spoke with said that it didn’t really matter. Nor did the prospect of a ride that would be over in just five or ten minutes. “No matter how long we go up, we love it, and we always enjoy setting up the balloon and just being here,” said Ann Kirby, who pilots a balloon called The Morning Kiss, out of Houston. Watching her team ‘fluff and puff,’ it was clear that being here at this well-organized festival in Plano was a highlight of any pilots flying season.
This year’s festival drew about 40 balloonists, and over the three days, more than 90,000 spectators would come and enjoy the food, the music stage, and the nightly glow. After seeing it in person, I can see why it’s not that important if they go up, it’s the spectacle of seeing so many of them all filled with hot air and bobbing in the wind that makes this a special event and one that so many people enjoy every year.