Hot-air driven craft fill skies over Atmore; hundreds come for rides, ‘glow’ spectacle
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
Despite stiff winds that grounded the group for a day, 10 hot-air balloon pilots from five states filled the skies over Atmore with their brightly colored and lighter-than-air craft in a novel end to 2022.
The event, Frank’s Labor Day Annual Balloon Rally (FLABR) Fest, might have been named for another holiday, but local balloon enthusiast and pilot Rusty Miller agreed that the event created a community feeling to the hundreds who enjoyed rides in the multi-hued craft and who witnessed an impressive “glow” display.
“We had a good time,” said Miller of himself and the balloon pilots who traveled from Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi — even one who resides in California. “We didn’t get as many flights in as we wanted to, not only due to rain but the wind issues we had to deal with. It was really windy.”
He said the reception the aeronauts received Saturday, December 31, when the “glow” was presented, was pleasantly surprising.
“We had a really good crowd New Year’s Eve, much more than I expected, especially due to the weather and having to change where we set the balloons up at the last minute. We had people waiting on us when we got there, long before dark. It was a really good turnout.”
Original plans called for the balloons to lift off from the vacant field behind Hardee’s and Sonic, near Interstate 65. Soggy grounds there caused the group to move the show to the vacant lot next to Tom Byrne Park and across from Escambia County High School.
People didn’t seem to mind the relocation. Cars were parked along the eastern length of Lindbergh Avenue, at Tom Byrne Park and on the ECHS campus. Individuals enjoyed tethered rides in the various gondolas, just a few feet below the brightly decorated balloon envelopes, and got to talk at length with many of the pilots.
“We all loved it,” Miller said of the pilots and crews. “It was special for our small town to see the smiles we put on everybody’s faces on New Year’s Eve. People who rode raved about it.”
The highlight of FLABR (pronounced “flabber”) Fest came Saturday at dusk, when the group conducted its “glow.”
The glow is usually the climax to a major balloon festival and occurs when the balloons are inflated at dusk but held down by their respective ground crews. Burners are ignited occasionally to keep the envelope inflated, and as darkness falls, the balloons begin to glow like giant light bulbs or multi-colored lanterns.
“One of the things I asked this year was if (fellow pilots) would do a glow for the public, and everybody agreed,” Miller said. “They all volunteered time and equipment to come out and give the city a good show.”
Sightings of one or more balloons were reported on social media platforms from all over the area. Miller said the balloonists have no concrete idea where they will land once they become airborne and fall under the control of prevailing winds.
“Sunday morning (January 1), we had 10 balloons in the air, and we had a great flight,” he recalled of the dawn liftoff. “One landed at the airport, one landed out by Lee Vet Clinic, five of us landed in a little sod field across the (Florida) state line. We were all scattered out. You never know exactly where you’re going to land.”
Miller said he wasn’t certain if the event would ever become an annual component of the local events calendar, that it’s more like a family reunion to which the public is invited.
“Maybe,” said Miller. “We’ll have to see. These are all volunteer pilots who come here on their own dime. It’s mostly a group from the Southeast who are good friends, or actually a balloon family, who likes to get together different times of the year. It’s not an event that has a dictated schedule; we like to just get together and fly.”
News photos by Ditto Gorme