Once a year, a magical celebration comes to the fields of Blue Jacket Park.
Scattered chatter and laughter echoed across the grass, barely audible above the playful sounds of the bells and whistles echoing off the carnival booths, and the home-grown country music station in the background. Baldwin Park residents carried both salty and sweet confections including globs of cotton candy, freshly popped popcorn and ice-cold beverages.
At first glance, the park would have appeared quite dark at the 8 p.m. hour, but those who attended the event patiently waited for the main spectacle.
Suddenly, the park began to twinkle.
The joy in attendee’s faces was illuminated as the enormous hot air balloons drifted in the sky, lighting up in scattered patterns that decorated the park in multi-colored lights with a spectacle of shadows.
“The 2021 Balloon Glow Tour was definitely something I will always remember,” says Jasmin Acosta, who attended the event. “We come every year, and it’s just something you never forget.”
The Balloon Glow Tour first began in 2019 and has since then become the largest producer of hot air balloon events in the United States. The tour travels across a plethora of popular cities including Miami, Orlando, Atlanta, New York, Indianapolis, Las Vegas and St. Louis.
This event marked the fourth consecutive winter event in Baldwin Park. Ricky Garvie, owner, president and coordinator of the event, says the company is planning a big celebration next year to mark its fifth anniversary.
“Seeing the look on everybody’s face — especially when the balloons first go up — it doesn’t matter if it’s a 5-year-old or a 90-year-old, everybody’s like, ‘Wow look at that,’” Garvie says.
The idea of a balloon “glow” was first reconstructed from the idea of creating a concept where there would be constant activity, as opposed to a typical balloon festival during which the balloons would take off, fly away and be gone in 10 minutes, Garvie says.
With the concept of a balloon “glow,” balloons are safely tethered to the area of the park for attendees to watch, ride and learn. The event also includes a variety of additional activities such as carnival games, food trucks, music, local vendors and more.
“There are always balloons going up and lighting up, and always something to look at,” Garvie says. “Being able to come out and see friends and families sitting together on blankets watching the balloons and having a nice night in their community is a big deal for us.”
Garvie says this year has been extremely stressful with both the coronavirus pandemic and the weather cycle. In the last few years, the organization has previously only canceled a handful of events. This year, about 12 events were canceled.
The pilots that help to run the event and fly the balloons come from across the United States, including Florida, Missouri and Tennessee. Many of the pilots have been in the balloon industry for more than 30 years.
Richard Davenport, a balloon pilot who started in Oklahoma, has been flying balloons since 1985.
“I wouldn’t still be doing this if I didn’t love it,” Davenport says. “And it’s an amazing experience.”
In 1991, Davenport started as a pilot with REMAX. At the time, the company only had one balloon and about 20 appearances a year. Although numbers were higher before COVID-19, the company now does about 150 to 170 appearances a year, with two balloons that Davenport manages.
“The balloons are fun for everybody, and a lot of people actually have never been around a hot air balloon before, he says. “I get excited to see them enjoy that excitement for the first time.”
Davenport says the size of the envelope determines how much a balloon weighs. One of the REMAX balloons that Davenport managed at the event was 225 pounds and is about 76,000-cubic-foot balloon.
One of the bigger balloons that offered rides to participants with tickets at the event weighed 350 pounds and spanned about 120,000 cubic feet. The size of the balloon also determines the size of the basket it carries.
Although the REMAX balloon can hold a total of 1,600 pounds, the system weighs about 700 pounds, meaning the balloon could carry up to 900 pounds in people.
Many of the hot air balloons on sight had two burners to propel them. Davenport says he uses both because they go up and down a lot at the event; the burners allow him to quicken the rise or descent. Having two burners also helps with safety in case of high winds or unexpected turbulence.
Every time the pilots fly, they refill their propane tanks. Davenport had three 15-gallon tanks in the REMAX balloon. He says if he stays up for two or three hours, he will spend all the fuel.
Davenport says safety is one of the most important aspects at the event.
“The weather is always going to be unpredictable and something we can’t control,” Davenport says. “As soon as we begin to feel the winds pick up, we have to come down to ensure our safety and others’ safety stays intact. If it wasn’t safe, I wouldn’t do it.”
All the balloon managers at the event are licensed pilots through the Federal Aviation Administration. The pilots follow the same rules and regulations required by other types of aircrafts. Both the pilots and the balloons are regularly tested and checked.
Davenport says although some are nervous about flying in a hot air balloon, many recover from the fear quickly.
“I’m actually scared of heights,” Davenport says. “For some reason, once I get into this craft, I feel completely secure and comfortable.”
Another balloon pilot, Bill Whidden born in Kissimmee, first got into balloons from a friend.
“I thought, ‘What’s a grown man doing playing with balloons?’” Whidden says. “Two weeks later after seeing his balloon, I bought one for myself.”
Ian Foy, manager of the “Cloud 9” balloon, says he was stationed with the U.S. Air Force in New Mexico when he first saw a balloon event.
“I ran to see the event and knew I had to try it for myself,” Foy says. “I loved it and thought, ‘How can this get any better?’ Then I started to fly the balloons, and truly nothing compares to that.”