Texas Traveler: Plano Balloon Festival

Every fall for the past 29 years, the skies over Plano come aglow with colorful aircrafts and odd hissing sounds that signal take-off for flight

The Plano Balloon Festival will celebrate its 30th anniversary Sept. 18-20. It's an event that has raised more than 2 million dollars for non-profits in the Plano area, and has helped sustained a sport that utilizes the oldest form of human-carrying aircraft.

Texas Traveler has always been afraid of heights. That feeling of being on a ledge, standing unsupported with nothing underneath you to break your fall in the case of, say, a balcony collapse or a sudden strong gust of wind. But Texas Traveler also likes to experience new things, and so I was torn, a few years ago, when I was presented with an opportunity to ride in a hot air balloon with an experienced team of balloon racers.

Like boats, all hot air balloons have names. My balloon was called "WildThang," and it was piloted by Don and Becky Weeks, a couple from Amarillo who met several years ago at the country's most famous balloon festival, in Albuquerque, N.M. Balloonists are a tight-knit group, traveling cross-country from festival to festival.

Hot air balloons are simple devices, and a successful flight is very dependent on the weather. Most group launches start with a weather briefing. This time of the year, in Texas, the best time to fly a balloon is in the early morning or early evening. Pilots need enough light to see obstacles in the sky or on the ground, but the air inside the balloon also needs to be at least 100 degrees hotter than the ambient temperature in order for the balloon to "lift."

This works in favor of opening night at the Plano Balloon Festival. The first big event of the festival is a balloon launch and "glow", starting at 6 p.m. Friday evening. Balloon crews consist of two groups -- the pilot and air crew (or passengers) and the ground crew, who help set the balloon off and then drive a chase vehicle to retrieve the balloon when it lands. On the day of my flight a few years ago, ground crew is sparse, so I offer to help, holding open the mouth of the balloon (called the envelope) while Weeks uses a fan to inflate it. The basket of the balloon lays on its side, with the nylon envelope spread out beyond it. WildThang is a medium-sized balloon, about 90,000 cubic feet, not including the basket. The envelope itself weights about 250 pounds. When fully inflated, the entire aircraft weights about two tons.

Once the balloon is inflated, Weeks turns on the propane burners attached to the top frame of the wicker basket. Within minutes, the balloon rights itself, and in a few more minutes, the basket begins to lift off the ground. Week's wife Becky can barely hold the tether to the ground, so I'm told to hop in. By the time I feel brave enough to look down, we're 200 feet into the air.

There is not really a way to "steer" a balloon other than moving up and down to take advantage of wind patterns. Much of the ride is silent, punctuated by the incredibly loud, incredibly hot firing of the gas burners every few minutes. Riding in the balloon, everything feels so still. I can't even tell that we're moving until I catch the balloon's shadow on the ground below us.

Being in a hot air balloon, especially flying over a suburban area, is a voyeuristic kind of pleasure. The launch of the WildThang was early in the morning, about 7 a.m., and I watch as people step out of their homes in bathrobes to grab the newspaper. Backyard dogs bark at the odd object above them, and if Weeks pulls the burner while we're above someone, they'll look up at us, sometimes waving. Otherwise we go unnoticed, except for the white pickup chasing us below.

For some, the pleasure of a balloon festival is in the flight. But for others, it's being on the ground, watching the ballet of colors in the sky. Last year's Balloon Festival drew more than 90,000 spectators, and about 65 balloons. This year is expected to draw about 95,000 people, who will get to see balloons shaped like dinosaurs, panda bears and daisies, amongst the traditional crafts. Funds for non-profts are raised through concession sales.

The event, one of Plano's biggest tourist attractions, will also include fireworks, live music and skydiving performances. Pilots at the Plano festival are offering balloon rides, at a first-come-first served basis, on all three days of the event. A ride will set you back about $250.

A few hours after our launch, we land in a field, and our chase crew arrives to help us pack up. On the way back to the launch site, Weeks talks about the future of traditional ballooning, a sport he fears is dying out due to innovations in gas balloons, which use helium or nitrogen instead of hot air. Weeks serves on a committee for the Balloon Federation of America to help pilots become flight instructors for those interested in ballooning. In 2001 there were about 5,000 licensed hot air balloon pilots in the US. Now, according to HotAirBallooning.com there are only 4,000.

"Sometimes we don't see each other except at balloon festivals," Weeks said. "We're very intense in our relationships."

Admission to the Plano Balloon Festival is $8 a person with discounts for kids and seniors. The festival takes place Sept. 18-20 at Oak Point Park, 2801 E. Spring Creek Parkway in Plano. Check the website for the full schedule.

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