Just over two weeks ago Sue and I visited the Carolina Balloonfest held each October in Statesville, NC. We have been before but our last visit was some three years ago. This year was particularly notable because of the excellent weather we had throughout the three days of the Festival. The Carolina Balloonfest is unusual among balloon festivals because of the access that attendees are granted to the balloons. For the “fly-out” events, where the balloons are set up, inflated and launch from the festival grounds, attendees can walk amongst the balloons, talk with the pilots and crew, and photograph them close-up. If you encounter a particularly willing pilot and crew they may even let you photograph up into the inflating balloon through the throat just above the burners!
For the “fly-in” events the balloons are set up at a field, or fields, some distance from the festival site and flown into the field there. Sometimes the balloons can be just feet above your head. For the fly-in events there is usually a competition of some sort. One contest is where the pilot flies his balloon into the field and drops a marker, a small beanbag with a streamer, as close as possible to the center of a target. Closest to the center wins. This is known as a Convergent Navigational Task. The pilots may also fly a “Key Grab” event where the task is to grab a ring from the top of a 20-30 foot tall pole placed at the center of the festival site. For either event it always amazes me, given the pilot’s only way to steer is variable wind currents, how close they can maneuver their balloons to the targets.
Fly-out events may also have a competition such as the Hare and Hound. A single balloon, the Hare, inflates and launches. The other balloons, the Hounds which are not allowed to inflate until the first balloon is off the ground, launch and chase the Hare. After flying a predetermined distance the Hare lands and spreads out a target, usually a big fabric “X”, and the other balloons must drop their markers closest to the center. Again the closest marker wins.
The balloons are beautiful to photograph. They are usually made of brightly colored fabrics, sometimes in a special pattern designed by the pilot or owner, and can be photographed at close range to emphasize the abstract nature of the pattern. Because the balloons are only flown in very light winds they typically launch either just after sunrise or just before sunset so they are almost always in beautiful light. You don’t need a lot of lens to shoot them either. All of the images that accompany this blog were shot with a 24-105. I also used a 10-24 but sparingly.
Hot air balloons are enormous. I don’t think most people who have never seen one in person have any idea how big they really are. Think about this; if you have a 3000 square foot home with 8 foot ceilings the interior volume (not counting attic or crawlspace) is 24,000 cubic feet. An average size hot air balloon is 77,000 cubic feet or over three times the volume of the home! That balloon including the basket would weigh over 600 pounds! The air inside the balloon, or envelope, must be heated to a temperature of about 100 degrees over the ambient air temperature to lift off therefore flying in cooler temperatures is much easier and consumes less fuel than flying in warmer weather.
The Carolina Balloonfest is held each year on the third weekend in October. Next year’s dates are already on their website and other information will fill in as we get closer to those dates. To find out more about their event you can click HERE.
If you would like to learn more about hot air balloons in general the best place to start is the website of the governing body for balloon activity the Balloon Federation of America and you can find it HERE.