The Star-Herald

Crown of Maine Balloon Festival launches another successful year at fairgrounds

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Hundreds of people from in and around Presque Isle and even from farther away dropped by the Northern Maine Fairgrounds over weekend for the 15th annual Crown of Maine Balloon Festival.

Due to wind speeds of 30 miles per hour — more than 20 miles higher than the speeds considered safe for balloon flying — the 15 pilots participating this year decided not to take off Thursday, as originally planned.

Bud Hebrlee, a balloon pilot who lives in Frenchville during the summer and in The Villages, Florida, during the winter, explained that surface winds have to blow no more than 3 to 5 mph to warrant safe flights.

Destination Unknown and pilot Mark Stodolski of Auburn, Mass., float into still skies Friday evening at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds in Presque Isle. The 15th annual Crown of Maine Balloon Festival drew 15 balloons, their pilots, families and crew to the area last weekend, Aug. 23-26. (Paula Brewer)

“What we’ll do is send up a small balloon called a ‘pi-ball,’ which is short for ‘pilot’s ball,’ and that tells us what direction the wind is going and its speed,” Hebrlee said. “If we see the pi-ball going out into the distance real fast, then we know the wind isn’t safe enough to fly in.”

Hebrlee has brought his balloon “Diamond Girl” to northern Maine for the past five years and has been a balloon pilot for 43 years. He stated that the abundant wildlife, beautiful landscapes and friendly people are some of the many reasons why he returns to central Aroostook each August.

“The pilots and crew members have formed great friendships and we all stay in touch,” Hebrlee said. “We’re thankful for the landowners who allow us to land on their property and to the community that welcomes us.”

After learning of the canceled evening balloon launch, hundreds of people gathered on Main Street in Presque Isle for the annual street fair. Local father-and-sons group the Jerry T Band provided musical entertainment, while people browsed food and craft vendors, and children played in the bounce house and checked out a fire truck from the Presque Isle Fire Department.

Stacey and Joe Michaud of Presque Isle attended the street fair with their granddaughters Emma and Olivia, and said they were looking forward to finally seeing the hot-air balloons launch the next day.

“I think I would be too scared to actually ride in a balloon, but it’s fun to watch them fly by our house,” Stacey Michaud said.

Friday proved to be a much better day for flying both in the morning and evening, as wind gusts stayed relatively calm. Fourteen balloons launched into the air quickly and gracefully while one — “Be Happy,” owned by Kenny Shumate of Orlando, Florida — stayed behind to give tethered rides to folks to purchased tickets earlier that evening.

Dozens of people lined the fence near the launch site as early as one hour before the balloons took off. The balloons lifted gracefully one by one, eliciting gasps as observers gazed upward, many snapping photos.

A blast of flame lifts Tittravate, piloted by Joe Caputo of Princeton, Maine, upright during Friday evening’s mass ascension at the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival in Presque Isle. A sizeable crowd of onlookers turned out to cheer on the pilots as they launched into calm skies from the Northern Maine Fairgrounds. (Paula Brewer)

Winds picked up Friday night, however, forcing pilots to cancel the evening’s glow, said chamber officials.

“I’ve ridden in a hot-air balloon before, though not during this festival,” said Connie McLellan of Cross Lake Township. “When you’re up there you can’t even feel the air move. To look down at everything below you is just glorious.”

Mike and Cheryl Moore of Loudon, New Hampshire, were vacationing for the weekend in Aroostook County and decided to make the balloon festival a part of their trip. Mike Moore said that he and Cheryl had taken a balloon ride elsewhere five years ago and were looking forward to their Saturday morning flight over Presque Isle.

“We’ve never been up here before and so we decided to make this a weekend trip,” Mike Moore said.

On Saturday evening, the winds proved just right for the balloon glow, which featured several of the pilots lighting up their hot-air balloons brightly against the darkened skies, much to the pleasure of people watching from the sidelines.

Every year the balloon festival, hosted by the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce, draws in thousands of spectators for balloon rides, craft and food vendors, music, and family activities at the fairgrounds. The festival has begun to hold special meaning for Joel Jones, of Seale, Alabama, who has been a hot-air balloon pilot for 16 years and has flown his balloon “Redeemed” over the Crown of Maine for three consecutive festivals.

“I’ve flown in Canada and other places in the U.S., and I have to say that this is my favorite place to fly. There’s plenty of wide open spaces, which makes for easy flying,” Jones said. “Whenever I come back it feels like I’m coming home.”

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