LEWISTON, Maine — A picture-perfect morning saw more than 20 hot air balloons launch from Simard-Payne Park early Friday as the 19th Annual Great Falls Balloon Festival got under way.
Bill Colyer, the pilot of The Last Penny, based out of Fairfield, Conn., said the morning, with a light breeze and relatively high cloud cover, was ideal for flying.
Piloting the last balloon to launch Friday morning, Colyer dipped his basket into the Androscoggin River just below the Great Falls on the north side of the Longley Bridge to the sound of cheering fans on the riverbank.
“We only went in about an inch and a half,” Colyer said. “But it was enough to please the crowd.”
His three passengers, including Bill’s longtime companion and crew chief Pat Anderson, didn’t even get their feet wet.
Colyer, with an expert’s touch, pulled the lever on the torches used to heat the air in the balloon and it rose steadily, casting a gliding shadow on the nearby Hilton Garden Inn. At it for 37 years, Colyer said he doesn’t like to brag about how long he has been piloting balloons.
“I’m afraid they’ll start thinking I’m too old to fly,” he said laughing.
As the balloon drifted over the city, reaching a height of a little more than 800 feet above sea level, Colyer and his passengers waved and chatted with people on the ground.
“Roof inspection,” Colyer shouted down to one woman gazing up as The Last Penny drifted over her home. “She doesn’t look too happy. We probably just woke them up.”
Back on the ground in the park, Norm and Rita Hefty of Mt. Horeb, Wis., said they have attended four of the last six festivals with their grandchildren, who live in the Lewiston-Auburn area.
“We love it,” Norm Hefty said. “The colors, the people. It’s quite a spectacle. It’s become a ritual for us.” He said the family rises early and if the weather looks promising they head to the park.
“This is such a great event and it’s so nice the community turns out in force. There’s a lot of people here,” Hefty said.
Among the hundreds of morning spectators were Luke and Erica Drolson and their 5-year-old son, Luke Jr.
“This is awesome,” said Luke Sr. “They don’t have a balloon festival everywhere, so it kind of makes it an exciting event, and one of the nicer things is it really brings the community together.”
After about a 40-minute flight, Colyer brushed The Last Penny’s basket through the high branches of a maple tree to slow the craft before touching it down, with the help of his ground crew, in a parking lot beside the d’Youville Pavilion on Campus Avenue.
Vicki Bailey of Hampden was there with her two sons, Jacob, 13, and Ethan, 10. Bailey said they try to make the festival each year and not only watch the launches but try to chase the balloons to their landing spots.
“We love following them and seeing them land,” Bailey said.
Her boys, along with a gaggle of other children, were then put to work packaging up The Last Penny.
The festival continues through Sunday with the next launch, weather permitting, scheduled to take place at around 6 p.m. Friday from Simard-Payne Park in Lewiston.
For balloon festival information, schedules and live streaming of balloon launches, go to www.sunjournal.com/balloonfestival.