They start to arrive as early as 4:30 in the morning, wanting to beat the traffic and not wanting to miss the beginning of the show. Most mill about on a midway of food and merchandise vendors, and sip their coffee and eat their breakfast burritos as they wait for some sign of activity on the launch field. Loud music is blaring above the hum of the crowd. The local news stations are already set up and running through their sound checks and camera shots as the mass ascension this morning and the ceremony that precedes it will be covered live on TV. I walk by the booth of a radio station that will also carry the launch live, and when I stop to listen to the weather report that they are transmitting, the radio personality gives me a wave and then says to his audience that while the sky is cloudy this morning, there is only a small chance of precipitation. I look back out to the launch area and see a steady stream of trucks and vans pulling trailers roll onto the field. The trailers carry the stars of today’s show: a wicker basket, propane tanks and a burner, and of course, the balloon, or envelope in ballooning vernacular. Each truck and trailer moves to a designated launch spot and begins to unload its cargo. In the distance you see sporadic burners being ignited, as the pilots want to ensure that their equipment is working properly.
This increased activity starts a migration of individuals from the midway area onto the launch field. One of the wonderful things about this event, is that spectators can be in the launch area and move right up to where the balloons are being prepared for flight. Many congregate around the first balloons that will launch on this morning while it is still dark. These first balloons to take flight are called the Dawn Patrol and they are scheduled to go off around 0600, with the others to follow an hour later just before sunrise. Each of the eight balloons in this group is now being filled with air by two large fans running at high speed. When an envelope reaches the required level of expansion, the pilot begins to fire the burner and the super-heated air is driven into the envelope by the fans.
The volumes of intense, hot air created by the burner blasts slowly expand the eight envelopes even farther, and like lumbering animals that have fallen and struggle to get back on their feet, the envelopes begins to rise. A cheer goes up from the crowd as a balloon crew throws their full weight into bringing a basket upright and the attached envelope tentatively rises from its prone position on the ground. With each blast of a burner, a multi-colored envelope is illuminated in a vivid flash of color. With passengers now on board, the pilot squeezes a couple more blasts of super-heated air into the envelope and a very slight breeze out of the north begins to nudge the balloon across the ground. With a couple more burns the balloon rises and the crew lets go of the basket and guide lines and the balloon slowly ascends into the night sky, lighting up with each burst from the burner. It is a spectacular sight against the now dark blue, predawn sky. Following that first one, the others begin to rise one by one into the night sky until they are all aloft and moving away from us, randomly firing their burners and looking like fireflies in a large field on a summer’s evening.
The flight of the Dawn Patrol is captured in the first set of images below, followed by photos from Laura and my ride in a balloon the morning of the opening ceremony and its mass balloon ascension. How incredible it was to be in one of the 500 or so balloons that went up that morning. Another morning’s activities are chronicled in the third set of photos, while in the fourth photo set varied framing aspects of a collection of balloons highlights the beauty of their different colors and design.
Click on photos to open gallery in Flickr –