Baldwin County, Alabama, is pretty scenic from the ground, but for visitors who want to literally take their experience up to the next level, there’s nothing like floating over the Gulf Coast in a hot air balloon. Tommy Rachel of Taking Off Hot Air Balloon Company has been taking passengers aloft for eighteen years now, though his interest in ballooning started more than thirty years ago when he went to help a friend in Orange Beach set up a balloon.
Since getting certified by the FAA, Tommy estimates he has taken between 5,000 and 6,000 passengers up in his balloons. Flights, which last 45 minutes to one hour, take place early in the morning or in late afternoon, and his balloons only fly in perfect weather. He meets his passengers at Jesse’s Restaurant in Magnolia Springs and then chooses a route based upon the wind. His favorite flight takes off from a spot near Wolf Bay and flies over woods and water until touching down in one of the county’s sod fields. He usually sees wildlife on these flights and once spotted 27 deer, along with pods of dolphins in the bay. “Baldwin County is a perfect place to fly,” he says. “It’s so open and the views are great.”
Tommy is anxious to debunk myths about ballooning –”the balloon is not going to pop,” he says– and in an effort to introduce people to the sport he started the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival, which will celebrate its fifteenth anniversary this May 3 and 4 as more than 45 giant balloons soar over the small south Baldwin County town of Foley.
The event is presented by Tanger Outlets and hosted by the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce in partnership with the city of Foley.
Things get started the evening of May 2 with a “balloon glow”–in which the giant gasbags are illuminated by their hot-air burners—from 6 to 8 p.m. at Tanger Outlets in Foley. All other festival activities take place at the Foley Soccer Complex on U.S. Highway 98 west. Weather permitting, balloons will fly at dawn and dusk on May 3 and 4.
Tommy Rachel notes that conditions have to be near-perfect (no strong winds) for the balloons to fly safely. Meanwhile, back on the ground, festival activities include carnival rides, tethered balloon ascensions and plenty of food and music. For more information on Taking Off Hot Air Balloon Company, check the website at www.gulfviewballooning.com. For information on the Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival, visit www.gulfcoastballoonfestival.com or call the South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce at 251-943-3291.
Photos by Penny Deal, I Sea Images; and Jack Purser