What lifts the spirit more than the sight of colorful hot-air balloons against a cerulean Texas sky?
Of course it’s possible to appreciate the spectacle from anywhere you might happen to spot a balloon in flight—but festivals and races broaden the experience to include lots more fun, sport, and artistry, and often to support a worthy cause.
A few Texas cities are known for major ballooning events. While Plano, which held its first rally in 1980 with fifty pilots, was proclaimed the Balloon Capital of Texas that same year, Longview claimed the same title starting in 1985. Gregg County (of which Longview is the seat) was named the Balloon Race Capital of Texas by the 83rd Texas Legislature in 2013. Plano opened its Oak Point Park, purpose-built for the balloon festival, in 2003.
How do balloons race, you might wonder, when they have no direct control of flight direction? First off, hot-air balloons are flown by FAA-licensed pilots. Unlike automobiles or aircraft, balloons don’t race to see who reaches a finish line fastest; instead, competitions like the “Hare and Hound” usually score how close a pilot can
get to a pre-determined target, where small weighted markers are dropped. “Competition pilots have become quite skilled in reading the winds aloft and using them to their advantage to get where they want to be,” explains one website. “Competition directors have developed extremely complicated tasks for pilots to accomplish.”
Here’s a bit of background to help you make the most of the spectator experience.
On some of the major festivals’ websites, you can learn about the construction and operation of hot air balloons; history of balloons; and rules for a variety of competition events. If you’re interested in going up, you might shell out a few hundred dollars for a full flight— and you’ll need to reserve your spot in advance. But many festivals take guests a few feet up in a tethered flight, for a lot less—providing some great photo angles and a taste of being airborne.
Balloon glows, held at dusk when the colorful, translucent envelopes are inflated and brightly lit while gondolas remain on the ground, provide some of the most dramatic photo ops of the festival. Fireworks displays and parachute jumping competitions provide more great camera moments.
Balloon festivals are usually family-friendly, casual, and modestly priced; most events also charge a parking fee. Tickets can often be purchased in advance, allowing guests to bypass the box office and go straight to the admission gate.
Although balloon fests are usually held in large, open park spaces, bringing pets is strongly discouraged (or completely prohibited), as the loud noises from balloon burners can make pets anxious.
As for food, drink, and coolers, the Plano event’s website makes a good point: “We do not prohibit coolers; however, we do strongly discourage people from bringing them. Our mission is to provide nonprofit agencies an opportunity to raise funds and awareness for their programs and services.”
Blankets or lawn chairs are great for viewing balloon launches.
Dress for the season, and don’t forget sunscreen—as well as a compact flashlight for walking around after dark.
And since most of these events bring huge crowds to their cities, it takes a village of volunteers, vendors, and sponsors to pull any festival together. Staff must coordinate fund-raising, logistics, pilot registration, guest relations, photographer and media credentials, and much, much more . . . and keep a keen eye on the weather!
Be sure to thank your favorite pilots and all the other folks who organize these events for fun and sport.