Plano Star-courier > News
Nowhere to go but up -- veteran balloon pilots prep for 30th festival
Balloon pilot Pete Carter is hoping the dreary weather leaves North Texas before the EDS Credit Union Plano Balloon Festival is scheduled to start.
“When you’re in a hot air balloon, you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature,” he said. “If it’s too windy, too wet or pouring rain, hot air balloon pilots are unable to fly.”
The weather has negatively affected only a handful of balloon festivals; festival organizers quickly found a Plan B in all cases for participants to continue to enjoy the event. More often than not, the balloons will still inflate, but remain grounded to put on a balloon glow show.
Austin Young vividly remembers one festival where fog prevented a balloon launch.
“They asked us to inflate and stay grounded,” he recalled. “Festival-goers were allowed to walk around the launch field and mingle among the inflated balloons. Even though the balloons weren’t flying in the air, it was still a magical experience.”
Kevin Thompson agreed and considers the “Haze Blaze” one of his fondest memories of the Plano balloon festivals.
“The fog was so thick that you didn’t know where the balloons were until the burners went off,” he said. “It was an eerie sight, but the crowd was so fascinated.”
Young, Carter and Thompson are the three pilots who have flown in every flyable balloon festival in Plano since it began in 1979. From the skies, they have seen Plano grow from a small town into a large, bustling suburb.
“The city had maybe 37,000 people when we started back in 1979, and now the city’s population is more than 250,000. The growth of the balloon festival was and is very similar,” said Pete Carter, pilot of the Wishbone Graphics and Plano Profile balloon. “The event definitely grew with the city; it’s been an evolutionary process, just like the growth of the city.”
Carter began his involvement with the sport of ballooning on his 40th birthday, just before the first Plano Balloon Festival in 1979. He was a student pilot for the first event and is proud to say that he has since flown in every flyable festival over the last 29 years.
“Flying balloons is not like anything we deal with every day, like cars, trains or bikes,” he said. “To turn a balloon, you’ve got to wait for the right wind; to descend you have to let the balloon cool down. Ballooning is different from the automatic push-pull world that we’re in now.”
Carter owns and runs Plano-based Air Venture Balloons and provides commercial rides to clients. He said he keeps coming back to participate in the annual balloon festival because of the massive support the festival provides for local nonprofit organizations.
“The money raised throughout the three days of the festival helps so many nonprofits,” he said. “Many of them are able to generate an entire year’s worth of funds. I think that’s become part of the identity that the city of Plano carries, giving back to the community.”
Young has flown in dozens of balloon events across the country and even has had the opportunity to fly over parts of Austria and Switzerland. But despite his adventures, Young always makes arrangements to attend and fly in the EDS Credit Union Plano Balloon Festival. For 29 years, Young has flown the Zoopendous, Too! for each of the annual balloon festivals in Plano.
“I was invited to fly at the first Plano festival by some friends in the Dallas area,” he recalled. “There wasn’t much to it at the time.”
The family-oriented fun of the festival is why Young said he has regularly participated in the festival.
“Plano’s balloon festival is probably one of the best balloon events in the country because of its focus on family fun,” he said. “And the fact that nonprofit and service organizations are vendors really shows the city’s respect for its community.”
Young said his fondest memories of flying in the Plano balloon festivals are when the event took place at Bob Woodruff Park.
“Bob Woodruff was a great location for the event because of the park layout,” he said. “There’s also that lake where we’d do a ‘splash and dash,’ where we’d briefly dip into the water and ascend to fly over the trees.”
Young got hooked into the sport of ballooning while attending a balloon event at a Fourth of July celebration in Houston. He had received an invitation to attend a balloon training program.
“That was the first time I went up, and I immediately knew that [ballooning] was what I wanted to do,” he said.
Young, who lives in Cat Spring, Texas, about 30 miles northwest of San Antonio, makes the yearly trip to Plano, not only to fly in the festival, but to visit family. Young’s son and daughter-in-law settled down in Plano to raise their two children.
“Both children were born right after the balloon festivals, so that being in Plano for the festival already gave us the opportunity to celebrate their births,” he said. “Now that they’re getting older, we can celebrate their birthdays with a balloon ride.”
Thompson, pilot of the Lone Star balloon, said he continues to fly in the EDS Credit Union Plano Balloon Festival because he has seen it grow over the years and wants to continue watching it grow.
“I was a part of it when it was first started,” he said. “I’ve seen it evolve from what it was then to what it is now.”
Thompson said the first balloon rally was a simple one, where the focus was primarily on the balloons.
“And gradually they started adding more activities for spectators on the field after the balloons launched,” he said. “It grew to the weekend-long event that we all know now.”
Thompson got into hot air ballooning in the mid-1970s when his neighbor and close friend got into the sport.
He said he fell in love with it immediately, mostly because flying a hot air balloon is a team sport, appreciated by people of all ages and walks of life.
“It’s a good team event because so many people are involved. There is a lot of camaraderie,” he said. “Wherever you land, the spectators are always in awe and so fascinated. People will stop what they’re doing to watch a balloon fly through the air.”
Without the continued support and participation of hot air balloon pilots and enthusiasts, the EDS Credit Union Plano Balloon Festival would not be the event that the Plano community has grown to love over the years.