High winds and heavy rains didn’t stop pilots from coming out for the 19th annual Big Country Balloon Fest at Red Bud Park this past weekend.
Sixteen pilots from around the country came to Abilene for the festival. Two or three launched their balloons on Sunday, but many remained grounded because of the weather conditions.
Mark Ibbotson, pilot of Grand Prairie, remained on the ground for safety reasons.
“The wind is just a little fast for flying,” said Ibbotson. “It’s about 20 mph over our limit.”
The only airborne objects on Friday and Saturday were kites flown by the Austin End of the Line kite team.
“We’re their insurance policy,” said Jim Cox, co-founder of the team. “When balloon festivals are too windy for the balloons to go up, we’re here to provide some entertainment.”
Cox’s team was not the only one to provide activities.
“We’ve got a whole festival for families,” said Robin Hicks, Balloon Fest coordinator.
Pony rides, inflatable bounce houses, bands and mechanical bull rides and just a few of the attractions the festival sported.
The pilots themselves could do little more than sit on the sidelines and hope for the weather to clear.
“The biggest thing is, we’re just as disappointed as everyone else,” Ibbotson said.
“It’s eating at everyone,” added Ron McKinney, a pilot from Oklahoma City, Okla. “We didn’t come all this way just to sit here.”
Only one balloon, called an envelope, was inflated Friday evening. Pilot Steve Lombardi of Houston said he uses the smaller balloon specifically in bad winds.
“I mostly do promotions,” he said. “I bought the balloon for occasions like this where we wouldn’t normally be able to fill one.”
While most pilots were unable to fill their balloons Friday evening, they did participate in a “candlestick burn” at sunset.
“A candlestick burn is where you basically shoot fire up in the air,” Ibbotson said. Pilots set up the baskets on the ground and fire their burners into the night sky.
The propane burners typically heat the air inside the envelope, allowing the balloon to stay upright, as some were Saturday evening.
The festival was officially cancelled Saturday morning because of the rain, but reopened as the park dried. Another candlestick was held at sunset and some pilots even inflated their envelopes.
“They basically told us to do whatever we thought was safe,” said pilot Dwayne Jackson of Abilene. “I live here, so I know the weather patterns, and I felt like I could fill her up.”
More balloons were inflated Sunday morning and a few eventually took to the skies. Several pilots were still unwilling to launch because of the weekend rain and the mud it left behind.
The Big Country Balloon Festival benefits the Optimist Club of Abilene. The club, a local branch of Optimist International, is a non-profit organization benefiting low-income youth in Abilene. The Balloon Fest is the organization’s primary fundraiser.
“It’s all about helping the kids,” Jackson said. “They’re the reason I do this. I love seeing the look on their faces.”
Robin Hicks wanted to thank the volunteers that helped set up the Balloon Fest, including a number of ACU students.