About a dozen hot air balloons floated gently into the sky from Red Bud Park Sunday for the grand finale of the 20th annual Big Country Balloon Fest.
In a marked improvement from last year, the weather was calm enough for pilots to take flight Saturday and Sunday and allowed a sizable crowd to attend.
“We’ve had a great turnout this year,” said Kathey Ashley, the pilot coordinator for the event. “We really appreciate everyone who comes out to support us.”
The festival is hosted by the Abilene chapter of Optimist International, a non-profit organization that benefits low-income youth. Due to foul weather last year, the club was not able to cover the cost of the event.
The president of the Optimist Club, Robin Hicks, said this year’s festival was significantly better.
“The difference is night and day,” she said. “The weather’s just wonderful. It’s fixing to be a good show.”
Attractions at the festival included bounce houses, pony rides, a petting zoo and tethered balloon rides. Joining the balloons in the air were the kites of the End of the Line Synchronized Kite Team, which performed at the event last year.
The coordinators were only planning to perform a candlestick burn – firing the burners without the balloon attached – until 7:30 p.m. Saturday when the wind died down and allowed several pilots to inflate their envelopes for a full glow – activating the burner with the balloon inflated.
Pilots took off Sunday morning with help from volunteers from the crowd of spectators. Among these volunteers were four ACU students – Bonnie Ashlock, Brady Cox, Alex Buckel and Paulina Sanchez – who returned to watch the balloons ascend.
“It was a spur-of-the-moment date,” said Sanchez, a junior biology and pre-med major from Decatur. “We went to the festival Saturday night, but they weren’t actually going to fly off the balloons which was really disappointing.”
A member of a balloon team told the group there would be a flight Sunday morning, so they decided to go back and watch the liftoff before attending church.
“And then they asked for help,” said Buckel, junior environmental science major from Azle.
The students had inadvertently chosen to watch from the volunteer benches, and were assigned to help the crew of the Old Lady and the Shoe – the only specially-shaped balloon on the field.
“There’s a lot more that goes into hot air balloons than you think,” said Ashlock, junior nutrition major from Abilene. “This one weighs almost a thousand pounds. An average balloon is about 80 feet tall, and the Old Lady is about 140. One hundred forty-seven feet tall, to be exact. At that height, it is one of the tallest balloons in the nation, said pilot Chris Jones, operating out of Amarillo and a newcomer to the festival.
“The Space Shuttle Balloon has us beat by about 70 feet,” he said, referring to the largest hot air balloon in the world, the Patriot.
The students helped operate fans to inflate the boot-shaped envelope, and even crawled inside to fasten two of the vents that allow air to escape.
“She’s a really sweet lady, you just have to get to know her,” Buckel said about the balloon. “She’s a bit stressed out with all the kids, but she has a good heart.”
After the balloon was upright, they were given the opportunity to go up with Jones on a short tether ride.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to get off the spectator bench and into the hot air balloon,” Ashlock said.
The unexpected plan turned out to be a day to remember.
“It was a good Sunday morning that we weren’t really expecting,” Sanchez added.
Jones said he would love to come back next year for the festival.
“The people here really made it worth my while to come over,” he said.