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Crown of Maine Balloon Festivals draws community despite no first-day flights

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Local volunteers and crew members behind the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival kicked off the weekend in good spirits on Thursday evening despite uncooperative weather that forced the pilots to cancel their early morning and evening flights.

Bud Hebrlee, a balloon pilot who lives in Frenchville during the summers and in The Villages, Florida, during the winters, explained that surface winds at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds have to blow no more than three to five miles per hour to warrant safe flights. Thursday evening’s surface winds proved to be close to 30 miles per hour, much too high for the scheduled morning and evening balloon flights.

Jones said that as of Thursday evening, pilots and crew members were expecting surface winds and speeds to calm down throughout the rest of the weekend and that all scheduled flights should take place as planned. Nonetheless, they will continue tracking the weather and update attendees on flight status soon before the morning and evening flights.

“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.”

Despite the change in plans, pilots and their crew members stayed at the fairgrounds to make last-minute adjustments to their balloons and prepare for the weekend. The 15th annual Crown of Maine Balloon Festival drew 15 pilots to the region this year, with 13 of them returning pilots.

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 cancelled balloon launch, hundreds of community members 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 this weekend.

“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.

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. Those who want to experience the thrill of riding in a hot-air balloon can still sign up for tethered rides, which start Friday and Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Ticket sales for tethered rides begin at 5 p.m. both evenings.

Currently, balloon flights are scheduled to take off at 5:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evening and 5:30 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday at the fairgrounds.

Visit http://thecounty.me/ for more coverage of the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival throughout the weekend.

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