Crown of Maine Balloon Fest turns 20

9 months ago

There’s nothing quite like waking up early on a summer morning to a mysterious “whuff, whuff” sound and seeing a vibrant hot-air balloon float overhead.


People in Presque Isle will see the spectacle when the 20th edition of the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival takes place Thursday, Aug. 24, through Sunday, Aug. 27.   

Over its two decades, the event has transformed from a few balloons and minimal spectators to a four-day extravaganza that draws 4,000 to 8,000 visitors from Canada, Maine and the rest of the U.S. Organizers have added live music, food vendors, crafts and children’s activities to keep people busy at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds headquarters. 

The formula has introduced many visitors to what Aroostook has to offer, committee members said.

“We have something special up here,” said Derik Smith of Presque Isle, a pilot who has been on the committee since the festival started in 2004. “It’s the same vibe that brings sledders here all winter long. What we have is so compelling that this is many pilots’ favorite place to fly.” 

Dena Winslow, a local pilot from Presque Isle, and Canadian pilot Wild Bill Whelan convinced the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce that Presque Isle needed balloons, Smith said. Turns out they were right. The event became the Crown of Maine Balloon Fest in 2006. 

Smith had his own balloon, the red, white and black Queen of Hearts, several years ago. He has since sold the balloon to former festival regular Joel Jones, but still has a single-seat balloon his father, Milt Smith, built.

Hot-air balloons and their pilots get ready to take off on a perfect evening at the 2022 Crown of Maine Balloon Fest in Presque Isle. (File: Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

It isn’t just The County’s spectacular skies but what’s below them that entices pilots to return, Smith said.

“For sure, we have beautiful azure skies, but it’s the multitude of landing spots, lovely landowners, amazing crew, and County charm that bring the pilots here year after year and have others asking to come,” he said.

This year’s flights are already sold out. People from more than 14 states have confirmed they are coming this year, according to Jordyn Madore of the Crown of Maine Balloon Fest committee. 

The event typically draws thousands of spectators. It’s a boost to the local economy, and an even larger testament to how welcoming the community is, Madore said.

Fourteen pilots will attend this year, including longtime favorite Wendell Purvis of Tallahassee, Florida, with his balloon Tracer. Purvis has been part of the festival for many years and has made good friends in the area.

Michael Olin of Warner, New Hampshire, will attend the festival for the first time with his balloon Heaven Sent, according to the committee. Balloonist John Viner of Nottinghamshire, England, will come from farthest afield with Master Zaba, a frog balloon that will remind viewers of his Hyla the Frog from several years ago.

Some of the pilots will fly multiple balloons throughout the four days, Madore said.

Many balloonists have said they love Aroostook County, and two have even bought property in the area, she said. Both come from regions without snow, and despite County winters they’ve chosen to put roots here because of the sense of community.

The committee has expanded the food vendors and will also offer a merchandise tent and caricature booth, Madore said.

Opening ceremonies and the traditional ribbon burning will take place at 5 p.m. Thursday. Weather permitting, mass balloon ascensions will take place Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings. 

At the fairgrounds there will be tethered rides, the music of Wally and the Virginian and Star City Syndicate, a street fair with D.J. Manzo and evening balloon glows.

People go on balloon flights for many reasons, Smith said. Sharing those moments with passengers is special for pilots, too.

“It is truly something to watch someone forget about their cares for a while, to watch them embrace those moments of untethered joy and slip their earthly worries for a spell,” he said. “I will never forget those moments and I doubt any pilot who has had one will either.”For more details, visit combf.com/schedule.