It’s barely 6 a.m. and the sky is just dawning pink when we jump into the vans and head for Oak Point Park, the launch center for the annual Plano, Texas Balloon Festival. This balloon festival, one of the largest in the country, has been held for more than 30 years, always on the third weekend in September. Today, the weather is warm, the air relatively still, perfect for take off.
We’re with Michael and Becky Marx, pilots of Fired Up Too, a giant, rainbow-colored hot air balloon, and five ground and chase crew volunteers. We’ve all crammed into their Suburban that’s pulling a closed trailed containing the Marx’s balloon and basket.
We pull into the launch area and an official checks us off the list. Balloonists – and there are 50 or so this year – pay a $50 refundable “show up” fee. The Festival pays for both their hotel accommodations and the propane they’ll burn over the next three days.
The grassy meadow has numbers marking spaces that give the balloonists and crews room to stretch out the giant canopies for filling and launching. Becky selects a spot between the G-Daddy and Re-Max balloons. “Oh, there’s Phil,” she says, noting a fellow pilot busily at work directing his crew. Most of the pilots know one another and often fly together at festivals around the country. Becky and Mark, who’ve been flying for 15 years, travel to a half dozen around the country. Since they live in Prosper just a few miles away, the Plano Balloon Festival their local, not-to-miss event and many of the balloonists flying today are their neighbors and friends.
The Plano Balloon Festival, which attracts 50 to 100 balloons and up to 90,000 spectators, isn’t the largest balloon festival in the country, but it may be one of the most grassroots. The festival was originally organized in 1969 by a group of balloon enthusiasts. At the time, Plano, only 30 minutes from metropolitan Dallas, was largely farm country with large open fields that made it easy to land the giant balloons almost anywhere and the area quickly drew lovers of this gentle airborne sport. Today, Plano is a busting suburb boasting dozens of corporate headquarters and more than 270,000 people, making landing balloons more challenging, but the grass roots, all-volunteer nature of the festival lives on.
“We’re a non-profit festival,” says Jo Vai, the festival’s Executive Director. “We’re run by a non-profit board, not the city. We attract more than 3,000 volunteers and lots of nonprofits. It’s an opportunity for nonprofits to raise money with their booths.”
Why so many people are willing to volunteer is a wonder. Ground and chase crews, for example, are all volunteer. They get up at the crack of dawn to work and sweat with total strangers, unpacking the unwieldy wicker baskets, fans and tanks, wresting the huge balloon canopies into place, filling the balloons with air and getting them launched, and then chasing the balloons across sometimes many miles to do it all in reverse. And they do it twice a day for three days.
“I just love it,” says Sylvia Cordova, a computer systems analyst from El Paso. She’s been coming to the Plano Balloon Festival, paying her own airfare, accommodations, and other expenses, for the past four years. “I love being around the balloons and the excitement, being on the launch field.”
Jay Tsai, an engineer who lives in Plano, agrees. “It’s really fun,” he says from the backseat. His face still shows the evidence of the early morning wakeup. “I like the people and helping out.”
Do they do it for the free balloon rides? “Not really,” says Jay. “Sometimes the pilots take us up, but not always. It’s really not about that. It doesn’t really matter to me whether or not we go up.”
The crew piles out of the SUV and immediately sets to work pulling out the big wicker basket with metal, leather-covered uprights. Next comes the canopy, dozens of yards of special rip-stop nylon (the kind used in camping tents and backpacks) with plenty of ropes attached. First, they lay down a giant drop cloth to keep the canopy free of mud and dampness from recent rains. Then they run out the canopy—one person at the top, two on the sides, and two at baloon’s gaping opening on the bottom. Michael attaches the burner to the uprights and to the tanks hidden inside the basket. The tanks hold about 40 gallons of propane, enough for about two hours of flight. With a flick of the wrist, he tests the burner, sending an impressive eight-foot flame skyward.
Becky wrestles an ordinary-looking large fan into place just at the mouth of the canopy and turns it on. With the volunteers holding the canopy open, the balloon immediately begins to flutter and fill. The balloons are filled with cool air at first. When they’re nearly full they lie on the ground like giant multi-colored whales. Then the pilot hits the burner, warming the air and the balloon’s canopy begins to rise, first in slow motion, then rapidly until it’s standing tall, towering above us.
“Get in,” says pilot Michel, instructing us to use the uprights and simply haul ourselves over the lip of the basket. There’s no graceful way in; my friend Sharon and I fling our legs over and scramble in, taking care to avoid the propane tanks on two sides.
Michael pulls on the burner level, releasing a firestorm of flame and heat right above our heads that feels like it’ll singe our hair.
These burners put out 12 million BTU’s per hour, enough to heat 120 three bedroom homes.
With a little wobble from the basket, we’re suddenly, silently airborne, rising effortlessly, 20 feet, 50 feet, 100, 300, up and up. Because of the potential for interfering with nearby airport and military air traffic, balloons flying around Plano are limited in how high they can fly. They typically reach altitudes of 500 to 2,000 feet. Today, we’re shooting for 1,000-1,500 feet.
Our silent assent is punctuated every few minutes by a blast of the propane burner, causing my ears to ring and making me wish I’d brought earplugs. The noise is overshadowed by the beauty – dozens of multi-colored balloons on the ground in various states of inflation; balloons in the air floating above us, below us, right next to us.. Sharon and I hang awestruck over the sides, pointing our cameras everywhere, clicking frantically in hopes of capturing this magic.
Whoosh, silence, whoosh, silence – Michael methodically fires the burner again and again, making the balloon rise, but it doesn’t feel like we’re climbing. When I ask why a purple and white balloon looks like it’s losing altitude and dropping rapidly, he smiles benignly at my naiveté. “It’s not dropping,” he explains, “We’re rising at a rate of 300 feet per minute. That’s just an optical illusion.”
Michael is a veteran pilot. His first balloon, one he calls “a beater,” cost a few thousand dollars. “You don’t want a beginner to fly a fancy balloon,” he says.
It was wife Becky who first introduced Michael to ballooning, dragging him to a balloon festival on one of their first dates. Michael was quickly captivated by the peaceful beauty of the sport and the rest, as they say, is history. Fired Up Too, a big beauty of a balloon with bright multi-coloreds panels and a sculpted wicker basket with leather sides, is the Marx’s third balloon and, at $30,000, their most expensive balloon. (Wicker is the traditional material used for balloon baskets because of its strength, lightweight and durability.) The cost doesn’t include the price of the enclosed, custom trailer they use to haul their balloon around. “The first ride is free; the second costs $30,000,” quips Michael ,laughing softly at his own joke.
Becky and Michael, private hobbyist pilots, won’t be earning back their investment in Fired Up Too anytime soon. Because neither of them hold commercial ballooning licenses, they can’t charge passengers for rides. (Commercial pilots charge anywhere from $250 -$700 or more for flights that can last a few minutes to a couple of hours. Theme flights like champagne excursions or even weddings add to the cost.) And while balloon festivals like Plano’s help out with free accommodations and fuel and volunteers act as crew, it’s a pricey sport. But the cost doesn’t faze the Marx’s.
“I love being around balloons,” enthuses Becky, who drives the chase car more often than she flies. “It’s a piece of fabric that can get you up into the air. That’s incredible.”
She also loves the easy camaraderie with friends she’s made through ballooning. She and Michael launch their craft nearly every weekend, sometimes right from their backyard.
Speaking of backyards, we’re flying low over several and a woman in an orange T-shirt and jeans stands in her driveway, looking up, and waving at us. Sharon and I wave back. As we float over neighborhoods filled with identical brick houses, we peek into the details of people’s lives – kids toys left outside, pots and soil from someone’s recent potting project, a BBQ and picnic table laden with detritus from last night’s party. A lonely black Labrador spots us and begins to bark frantically.
Then we move over a heavily treed nature preserve that cuts a green swath through the suburban sameness. Michael fires the gas – whoosh, whoosh, whoosh —to help us gain altitude rapidly and clear the trees below. We sail over them by inches. It’s like being a bird, smoothly gliding over the tree tops.
We pass a pond bordered by a curving concrete walkway. Two balloons float low over it, their brilliant canopies and the clouds perfectly reflected in the water. First one balloon and then the other dip down to the water’s surface, gently kissing it. “That’s a splash and dash,” says Michael, as we watch one of the balloons touch the surface and then rise up. The other stays floating gently on the surface. “And that’s how you get your feet wet.”
Michael drops the balloon down as we pass over a field filled with small sunflowers. We’re so low, we can see grasshoppers, startled by our sudden appearance, jump.
Sharon and I have stopped taking photos. We’re too entranced by the peacefulness to bother. A balloon floats by just feet from us and the balloonists inside smile and wave to us.
Forty-five minutes has evaporated like cotton candy in our mouths. All too soon Michael is looking for a soft spot to land. Balloon pilots control only the up and down of the balloon; everything else is dependent on the whim of the wind. Today’s almost breathless weather makes us relatively assured of an easy landing, not something that’s always guaranteed. “I’ve had some pretty rough landings,” says the pilot, declining to provide more details as he scans the area for a landing site.
He spies an empty field bordered on two sides by subdivisions, on another by an old warehouse-style store. Just up ahead are high intensity power lines and a large old cherry tree, but Michael’s not worried. He soundlessly sails over the power lines. As we pass the tree, our canopy rustles the leaves and then, bump, we’re back on terra firma.
“Fired Up Two chase, come in,” Michael intones into his walkie talkie.
“Fired Up Two chase here, where are you?” Becky answers.
“We’re in field just outside Ridge, across from the Ridge Road market. What’s your ETA?”
“We’re coming your way. We’re near Lake and Seventh. We’ll be there shortly. Over.”
As we wait for the chase crew, cars gather in the parking lot to watch our balloon. Two moms with toddlers in tow approach and Michael motions them to come closer. The children are entranced, at least until Michael pulls the lever and fires the propane that keeps the balloon from collapsing. Both little boys recoil, instinctively fearful of the big flame. The mothers reassure their children and convince them to stand in front of Fired Up Two for a quick photo op.
Becky and the crew arrive. Within minutes, the trailer is in position, the balloon deflated, and the gondola pushed into the enclosed box. With this veteran crew, take-down is fast and efficient. Before we know it, we’re standing in the parking lot where we started ,clinking champagne glasses, and admiring our “first timer” ballooning certificates, our peaceful floating journey feeling like a lovely dream.
The Plano Balloon Festival is held the third weekend in September at Oak Point Park in Plano, TX. Balloon rides are available ($250 pp) and pre-registration is recommended. The Festival features mass balloon launches, nighttime balloon “glows” in which the propane burners light up the canopies like Japanese lanterns, music, food, and a picnic area. For more information, www.planoballoonfest.org
— by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor