‘Let’s go’: The Great Texas Balloon Race opens in the sky over Longview | Local News

Pat Harwell says that for the passengers he takes in his hot air balloon, “it’s an experience they can’t repeat.”

Harwell and his wife, Susan Harwell, along with Joey Scarpinatto, Frankie McCall and Margaret Dupree are the crew of the Maverick, a 105,000 cubic foot hot air balloon competing in this year’s Great Texas Balloon Race, which kicked off on Friday in the sky above Longview.

Checkerboard in hues of blue, green, yellow and purple, the Maverick is the biggest ball in the race, according to Pat Harwell.

The Shreveport pilot has been flying hot air balloons for 32 years and said he started after meeting his wife.

“My wife was the first female balloon pilot in Louisiana. I was his team leader,” he said. “You love her or you hate her, and I loved chasing her in the ball. Then one day they put me in the ball and I fell in love with it.

People who’ve never been in a hot air balloon might be surprised at how peaceful it is, Pat Harwell said.

But despite the tranquility of the flight, the process of getting on the road and into the sky is filled with frenetic – but controlled – energy.

Before the sun was in the sky Friday morning, 65 pilots from as far away as Ohio, New Mexico, Louisiana and even England were given target sites during a pilot briefing at the Maude Cobb Convention and Activity Center. As soon as they were briefed and walked out of the convention center, the race began.

Pat Hartwell and Scarpinatto walked to a van where the rest of the crew was waiting and the ball, basket and other gear was loaded. The next step was to find a launch site – the ideal place to inflate and take off towards the targets.

To call the ride hectic is an understatement. Scarpinatto was holding a tablet with a map that showed live the direction the van was heading. A route crossed a private road, while the van then narrowly turned into a lot with a decent sized field. This ended up being the launch location.

Nearby cows lowed as the crew got to work unloading the basket, balloon, fan and other equipment. Other pilots had chosen nearby areas for their launch sites and could be seen inflating their balloons.

From start to finish, the process of getting the balloon out of the van and getting it ready for launch took about 15-20 minutes.

“Let’s go!” Pat Hartwell shouted from his place in the basket, signaling it was time to take off.

Some of the tasks for Friday’s competition included locating and hitting a land target with a bean bag from the air as well as launching a rubber duck into a body of water.

As the balloon took to the air, Pat Harwell and Scarpinatto discussed the wind conditions and the reasonable target to aim for. Scarpinatto held the tablet and navigated, frequently telling the pilot his distance, direction, and speed.

Pat Harwell pulled strings and controlled the burner with ease.

After flying for a bit, the two decided on a target and aimed the ball towards it. The controls felt finicky, as each notch in the wind seemed to change the way the ball flew. By the time Harwell approached the target, which was in a field near Ingram Park, the ball had maneuvered too far to the right and was unable to launch the bean bag directly at the target.

Pat Harwell said that as long as the bag landed within the fenced area of ​​the target, it could be counted in the task. Throwing the bag from the basket, he said he was about 30 feet from the fence.

Shortly after, he looked for a clear spot to land, and the basket made its descent behind Forest Park Middle School on Eastman Road. Some residents had gathered near the school to watch the balloon go down and then Pat Harwell motioned for them to take a closer look.

The kids huddled together and had a chance inside the basket as he told them basic details about the flight and the Maverick.

” That’s what it’s about. When you go to the communities and do that, if we land near a school or something or if there are children, we’ll put them in a balloon because it’s really such a beautiful thing to experience for the children,” he said. “It’s a force of attraction for us, it’s to share (the experience).”

The Great Texas Balloon Race continues through Sunday. Competition flights are scheduled these mornings across the city, while festival events, including music, vendors and more, take place from 4 p.m. to midnight today at the Longview Convention Complex.

Tickets for festival activities are available at OuthouseTickets.com or Visit Longview Marketplace, 109 W. Tyler St. in downtown Longview and Brookshire and Super 1 locations. Children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.

For more information and a calendar of events, visit www.greattexasballoonrace.com .