FOLEY – The 2023 Gulf Coast Hot Air Balloon Festival took is underway with events continuing through Saturday.

About 55 hot-air balloons from around the country will be filling the skies around the Foley area during in the annual event, which is based at the OWA Park and Resort in Foley.

Many pilots kicked off the celebration with balloon glows on the OWA grounds Thursday evening and exhibition flights Friday morning.

On Friday, several crews took their balloons to Elberta Elementary where three craft were inflated while tethered to the ground. Children laughed and shrieked as the propane burners ignited to heat the air in the balloons.

Pilot Andrew Nels of Atlanta said he understands the fascination the balloons hold for children. His father, Al Nels, was a world champion balloon pilot. “The first time I went up, I was about two weeks old,” he said. “I’d like to say I remember it, but I don’t think so.”

He said he often flew with his father as a child and flew his first solo flight as a pilot when he was 14.

“My first passenger was my father’s father,” Nels said. “He was 92. My father said this better be the softest landing you ever make.”

The balloon flights require extensive preparation and coordination. Crew members unload the wicker basket that holds the pilot, passengers and equipment, such as propane tanks.

They then unload the fabric bag, known as an envelope, that will be inflated to lift the balloon. After the envelope is attached to the basket, the bag is inflated using a large fan powered by a gasoline engine. Then the envelope is inflated, the propane burners heat the air lifting the balloon.

During a flight, the crew follows the balloon on the ground to retrieve the craft when it lands.

Balloons are scheduled to fly at around dawn and dusk during the festival. Early morning and late afternoon is most often the best time to fly when winds are more calm.

During other times at the festival, some balloons will be inflated on the OWA grounds. The event will also include music and other entertainment as well as vendors and arts and crafts exhibits.

Balloon glows, in which the inflated, tethered balloons are lit up by the gas burners, will also take place from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. if the weather permits.

The South Baldwin Chamber of Commerce puts on the festival. The city of Foley provides assistance including police, fire and sanitary services each year.