PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Despite last month’s fatal hot air balloon crash in Texas, organizers of the 13th annual Crown of Maine Balloon Fest, which starts on Aug. 25, remain optimistic about upcoming attendance and demand for rides.
Theresa Fowler, executive director of the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce, said organizers of the event here were “horrified” by the tragedy in Lockhart, Texas, on July 30, when 16 people were killed in a hot air balloon crash, after the balloon touched a power line and exploded. It was one of the deadliest balloon accidents on record.
But Fowler stressed that the safety precautions taken by the organizers and balloon pilots involved with the Crown of Maine event would ensure the safety of all passengers.
“Our pilots are not flying with the same equipment,” Fowler said Friday. “They don’t put more than four or five people in a basket for each ride. It is a very different situation.”
Twelve hot air balloons are expected for the Crown of Maine Balloon Fest that runs Aug. 25-28.
Tickets for tethered balloon rides will go on sale at 4 p.m. Friday, Aug 26, and Saturday, Aug. 27, at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds. Sales will be limited to the first 150 people each evening.
Tickets for passenger flights already are on sale by calling the chamber at 764-6561. Weather permitting, balloons will launch for passenger flights at 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and at 5:30 a.m. on Sunday.
Additional fest events include a downtown street fair that will be held on Thursday evening, followed by a meet-and-greet with the balloon pilots from 2 to 4 p.m. Friday. Pilots will fire up their crafts for a “balloon glow” at the fairgrounds at dusk on Friday and Saturday.
Numerous other activities, including an Aroostook County firefighter parade and antique tractor pull, are scheduled.
Fowler said that organizers did not make any changes to the festivities as a result of the Texas tragedy. They also do not expect to see a drop in the number of people seeking balloon rides this year.
“We usually see a couple hundred people who want to ride in the balloons each year,” she said. “This year, we have a special balloon from Brazil called Tri-birds. We are hoping to have great weather.”
Marie Hastings of Houlton said on Aug. 10 that she has enjoyed attending the balloon fest every year and even paid for a balloon ride several years ago. After the tragedy in Texas, however, she has decided not to repeat the experience.
“I had a great time and the views were spectacular, but after what happened out there, I am just too scared,” she said. “It is too bad, because my grandchildren really want to go up in one.”
Caribou resident Michael St. Pierre said he has attended the festival for the past 10 years but has never gone up in a balloon. He was thinking of doing it this year, but the tragedy also is weighing on his mind.
“I think I will just wait it out and see what the weather is when I get there,” he said.
John Rogers of Caribou said he has taken one balloon ride in the past and likely would take one again this year.
“I think it is a whole different situation here,” he said. “There are less people in the baskets and I trust the pilots.”
Fowler said that organizers are “confident in the safety and knowledge of all of the pilots.”
“All of them have flown here before, and our balloonmeister would not let the balloons go up unless he was absolutely sure it was safe,” she said.
For more information and a complete schedule of activities, visit online www.crownofmaineballoonfest.org.