LEWISTON — Despite some dark skies and early, worrying winds, the balloon pilots rallied Saturday morning at the opening of the second day of the Great Falls Balloon Festival.
Balloonmeister Mickey Reeder said about 15 of the 18 balloons managed to launch Saturday morning from Simard-Payne Memorial Park, heading south toward New Auburn, Durham and New Gloucester. The first balloon launched about 7:30 a.m.
Lewiston balloon pilot Jim Rodrigue, captain of the “Tailwinds” balloon, was among the skeptics at 6 a.m., when the first launch was scheduled. Ground-level winds seemed tame to most, but they were a concern to the pilots.
“It’s pilot’s discretion at this point,” Rodrigue said. “It’s still unstable. There’s a front between here and Augusta, so we don’t know what’s going to happen.”
But things cleared up considerably as the morning wore on. The fog lifted and winds calmed enough by 7:15 a.m. to reassure most pilots.
“That’s the way it goes with ballooning,” Reeder said. “Sometimes, it’s a waiting game. The (cloud) ceiling is much higher now then it was. And the dark clouds along the ground, you could see them moving and that’s something the pilots want to avoid. And that’s stopped.”
It was a good start to the second day of the festival, which continues all day Saturday and Sunday. A second launch is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday night, then again at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday
Reeder said the weather looked good for launches Saturday night and especially for Sunday morning.
“I think Sunday morning might be the best chance for a launch we have all weekend,” she said.
The Simard-Payne stage hosted live music all day Saturday until 10 p.m., featuring Brazen Cane, Veggies by Day, Yellow Brick Road and Skosh.
The Festival Plaza stage will feature live acts until 9:45 p.m. Saturday with Zealous Bellus, Eds Meds, The SkidMarks, Shady Lady and Jeroba Jump.
Entertainment continues Sunday with Mad Science of Maine, the Veayo Twins and local acts on the Simard-Payne Park Stage. Downeast Brass and Brian Patrick will perform on the Festival Plaza stage.
But people come for the balloons, and Reeder said the festival was doing something different. Festival organizers paid Albuquerque’s Patty Lewis to bring her three signature shaped balloons, and they were taking up residence in the park all day. Lewis brought her hummingbird-shaped balloon “Jewel,” fishbowl shaped “Aquario” and “Earth” — a globe made from silks printed with images of the planet taken by astronauts.
Lewis’ Earth and Aquario were inflated after the others had lifted off, but they remained grounded. Jewel was expected to inflate and stay on display Saturday afternoon and Earth would return for Saturday night’s 9 p.m. moonglow.
“We’re doing that on purpose,” Lewis said. “One thing festival organizers everywhere have learned is that balloon festivals are more fun if there are actual balloons on site. Then, people can come up and see them up close instead of having them all fill up and fly away.”
Saturday’s weather was a good break for balloon pilots, who get paid $185 per passenger — if the balloons fly. Reeder said the festival pays for pilots’ hotel rooms and for propane fuel.
“They usually make enough to pay for all of their travel expenses,” she said. “They don’t make a living with it.”
Pilot Jason Boucher of New Hampshire’s “Serendipity” said he balloons for the love of the sport.
“I have a second job, because I have to. I do drywall construction,” he said.
His balloon can hold up to five people per trip. With the festival paying for fuel, more trips helps him come closer to breaking even.
“I need to make $300 to $400 for each flight, when you consider chase vehicles for the balloon and insurance and depreciation on the balloon,” he said. “You need to think about that, because all of a sudden, you need a new one.”
Pilot Bill Colyer said he balloons all year round, traveling to festivals around the eastern United States.
“For the first 20 years I did it, I don’t think I even charged money,” he said. “Then, things get more expensive and you have to do some commercial work just to keep going.”
Our Great Falls Balloon Festival section has stories, photos, videos and social media coverage of the launches and non-launches.