LEWISTON — After two days of rain and strong wind, the weather took an unexpected and beautiful turn Sunday as the Great Falls Balloon Festival sent hot air balloons soaring into the skies over Lewiston and Auburn in morning and evening flights.

Still high from the first launch of the festival in the morning, onlookers watched as worrying winds took a trial balloon — a party balloon filled with helium — for a winding ride northward, but they barely had time to expect the worst before pilots began inflating their balloons, loading their passengers and embarking on the festival’s final flight.

Jamison and Jackson Gagne, 4 and 5, of Lewiston were in the middle of a stuffed alien battle when balloons began taking to the sky. Jackson said his favorite was the rainbow balloon while Jamison pointed in the general direction of the remaining ones.

“The best part is when they go up,” said Jackson, but asked if he wanted to go up in one of them, he emphatically and vigorously shook his head ‘no.’

Jamison, on the other hand, had mixed feelings. “I guess. Mom, you go with me?”

An estimated headcount from event organizers put the Friday and Saturday audience between 50,000 and 70,000.


Matt Hurst, lead pilot for Lehigh Valley Hot Air out of Cooperstown, Pennsylvania, said Sunday afternoon that after two days and four canceled launches, he was thrilled to be able to get in the air.

“We flew about two miles and got to see some waterfalls, we got to see a couple churches,” said Hurst. “I got to share that experience with seven people this morning. It’s a beautiful town.”

Hurst has traveled the country, Maine marking his 14th state, and was recently outside in Taiwan. He said he loves festivals like the Great Falls Balloon Festival because it gives him and the other pilots the opportunity to see new places and experience new things while showing people what balloon aviation is like and what it’s all about.

Safety is a number one priority, so when he gets a passenger white-knuckling the uprights all but begging to land and be cast off, Hurst tells them one thing: “Just give me 10 minutes in the balloon and then we’ll see where we’re at.”

“Ten minutes later they’re fine and I’m going up and down,” Hurst said. “I fly hot air balloons seven days a week, have over 1,000 flights, 900 hours officially and thousands of hours unofficially, and I feel safer in this balloon than in a helicopter or plane or even walking across the street.”

Great Falls Balloon Festival director of ballooning Paul Englehart is a pilot in Lewiston and he calls the shots on whether the balloons go up or stay on the ground. He was loath to reflect on the past two days of grounded balloons, but opened up about the reasons behind the decisions which take safety into account first and weather, and then pilots’ judgements. He said every call he made was unanimously agreed upon by all pilots.


“I’m excited we were able to launch this morning, but at the same time, obviously, we wish for six out of six. Everybody knows we do,” Englehart said. “We stood them up on the field on Saturday morning and Saturday night (giving) the kids, the parents the opportunity to meet the pilots, to see the balloons up close and not just in the air. But the smiles on their faces when the balloons went up today? That was beautiful.”

The inability to launch gave people the opportunities to learn about balloon aviation and the weather factors that prevent flight as well as seeing the balloons inflate and being able to speak with pilots about what they do and why they do it.

“It’s nice to be able to do that. Not everybody has a balloon in their garage. Not everybody gets to play with them like some of us do,” said Englehart.

Englehart was on the field Saturday to explain the reason launches would not move forward was because of wind factors. There was a lot of puzzlement in the crowd with nearly no wind to speak of.

“What happened Saturday both times was the upper winds that we have to punch through to fly were moving 18 knots in one direction, 20 knots in another and 23 knots in another. We can’t punch through that many layers to get up. We’d burn too much fuel. But down on the ground it’s beautiful, so I explained it to people and they went, ‘oh, I didn’t realize.’”

Hurst said nothing is worse for a balloon pilot to tell his passengers they won’t be going up for a flight. Nobody gets into balloon aviation to sit on the ground, he said.

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