Balloons Over the Pines
By Randy Mallory
Each July, the sky above Longview turns predictably polka-dotted when the Great Texas Balloon Race (GTBR) fills the air with dozens of brightly colored hot air balloons. The sky turns particularly polka-dotted this July, because during part of the 34th annual event, balloon-happy Longview concurrently hosts the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championship. What’s more, the city will host the Nationals again in 2013 and 2014. Organizers of the two events expect that the weeklong competitions, involving some 75 hot air balloonists floating over the Piney Woods, will attract some 40,000 visitors.
The national contest features America’s top 50 balloonists, who vie to win the national title, prizes totaling $50,000, and the chance to represent the U.S. in the 2014 World Championship in Brazil. These top 50 compete in numerous weekday flights for the Nationals, then join another 25 or so balloonists for the GTBR events Friday through Sunday.
'It’s incredible to walk around among these giant, glowing balloons for a close-up view and even chat with the pilots. It’s a great family outing.'
All flights take place early each day (6:30 a.m.) to avoid daytime thermals. Flights for the Nationals launch from various locations around Longview and elsewhere in Gregg County, depending on wind direction and flight tasks (such as locating a target on the ground or performing certain maneuvers in the air). Viewing these weekday fly-bys is a matter of luck; fans keep their eyes peeled skyward early each morning.
Then, Friday afternoon through Sunday morning, Nationals pilots join GTBR pilots for flights and other family-friendly activities based at the GTBR festival grounds at the East Texas Regional Airport. GTBR founder and Longview dentist Bill Bussey (himself a record-setting balloonist) invented the festival’s most popular event, the “Balloon Glow,” now a common crowd-pleaser at balloon festivals worldwide.
The Friday- and Saturday-night balloon glows at the GTBR begin with the inflation of whimsical balloons known as “special shapes.” Sometimes two or three times the size of a typical hot air balloon, these oddities can resemble anything from a clown’s face to a bumblebee. Then, after sunset, the regular balloons inflate alongside the special shapes, and all remain tethered in place. Around 8:50 p.m., the chant goes up, “One, two, three, GLOW,” and the simultaneous blasts of propane burners illuminate the balloons as if they were fantastical fireflies in a darkening sky.
The balloon glow remains a peak experience for balloon enthusiasts and Longview residents Blake and Leska Parker, who have come to the festival since 2005, when their oldest son, Chance, was two years old. “The noise of the propane burners scared him at first, but then he really got into it,” says Blake. “Now he looks forward to the Great Texas Balloon Race more than Christmas.” Last year, the Parkers invited extended family, and four generations enjoyed the balloon glow together.
“It’s incredible to walk around among these giant, glowing balloons for a close-up view and even chat with the pilots,” adds Blake. “Before the balloon glow, we munch on funnel cakes, play some kids’ games, and check out the craft booths.
From the July 2012 issue.