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Plano Balloon Festival 2011: ‘Like the Earth is Revolving Underneath You’

By Richard Varr

“All burn” at the 2011 Plano Balloon Festival. Photo by Richard Varr

They stand like giant and colorful light bulbs – glowing, flickering and illuminating the night sky.  It’s Saturday night at the 2011 Plano Balloon Festival where I’m watching an “all burn,” where balloonists fire their propane burners in unison – a syncopated burst of flames shooting up in more than a dozen now glowing balloons.  The gently swaying aircraft sport bold patterns, sponsor names and cartoon-like faces – a colorful cacophony of creativity and aeronautical design.

Firing the burner. Photo by Richard Varr

Held every September, this year’s Plano Balloon Festival was the 32nd annual event.  It’s Texas’ largest such festival with liftoffs during the early morning and evening, when free-floating balloons drift along a landscape of long shadows and orange sunrises and sunsets.

“You’re standing in a basket and it’s not like your flying,” says John Cavin, pilot of the Purple People Eater balloon.  “It’s like the Earth is revolving underneath you.  That’s the feeling you get when you’re up there.”

I attended the three-day event on Saturday, September 17th.  Wind gusts ruled the late afternoon and early evening, and for a while pilots where skeptical whether their balloons would ever take shape, as flight seemed out of the question.

Balloons taking shape at Oak Point Park. Photo by Richard Varr

But at dusk, Mother Nature took a breather perhaps as winds finally died down.  Suddenly, Oak Point Park’s throng of festival goers cheered as electric fans whirled and burners blasted flames into the balloons as they slowly came alive.

To get balloons airborne, they’re first laid flat on the ground.  Crews use fans to inflate them while sideways, and once suitably inflated, burners shoot bursts of heat to give the balloon lift.  Once the air is hot enough, the balloons tilt upwards and baskets are positioned for launch.

“All burn.” Photo by Richard Varr

Flights can be tricky and sometimes unpredictable, often at the mercy of wind gusts and weather conditions, with the pilot having the final say on whether the balloon will take off.  “My mind is one of safety – what can I do to make sure this flight ends up peacefully,” says pilot Phil Bryant with the Texas Council on Propane balloon.  “I always try to position myself, the balloon and the passengers in a way that the landing is really the most important part of the flight.  It’s the landing that really makes the difference.”

John Cavin (left) and Phil Bryant. Photo by Richard Varr

“There are no two landings alike,” adds Cavin.

Flights this year were $250 per passenger, and the festival had fireworks, marathons and other events to entertain those wanting to stay on solid ground.

“It’s a way of enjoying aviation that you can’t in any other type of aircraft,” says Bryant.  “We can float over bodies of water.  We can pick a leaf off the top of a tree.  You can’t do that in any other type of aircraft.”

VIDEO of “All Burn” with Countdown

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