A crowd gathers as Patrick Grogan, the pilot of Neon Dreamz, gives tethered rides during the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival on Saturday. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Presque Isle Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Weather patterns don’t always allow hot-air balloons to safely float through the skies in northern Maine, as was the case for much of this year’s Crown of Maine Balloon Festival, which began Thursday in Presque Isle.

But for the pilots, volunteer balloon crews and spectators, what never changes year after year is the chance to come together as a community and experience the thrill of seeing those balloons finally take off.

“I love coming to this area,” said Mark Fritze of Tallahassee, Florida, who brought his patriotic balloon Freedom Flyer to the festival. “It’s like coming home to family. It’s even better than family.”

The Crown of Maine Balloon Festival began in 2004, when local pilot Dena Winslow and Ontario-based pilot Bill Whelan, who did not fly in this year’s festivities, convinced the area chamber of commerce to launch an Aroostook-based festival.

Though originally called the Isle Fest, the event became the Crown of Maine Balloon Festival in 2006 and has since attracted from 10 to 15 pilots from across New England, Canada and southern U.S. states each year.

The festival draws thousands of visitors to Aroostook County, making the event a major economic boost for the region. With COVID-19 reducing the festival to a much smaller-scale community barbecue and concert last year without hot-air balloons, this year’s activities were a welcome return to normal for business sponsors and vendors who sold locally made products at the fairgrounds and balloon enthusiasts alike.

Nearly half the pilots traveled from Florida this year, while others came from Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Alabama.

Despite canceling all Thursday and Friday flights due to strong winds, the 11 pilots who took part in the 18th annual festival Thursday-Sunday still had several chances to soar above Presque Isle and the surrounding potato fields.

All pilots launched from a field near Reach and Johnson roads Saturday morning and from their usual spot at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds Saturday evening and Sunday morning. After sunset Saturday, the pilots inflated their balloons once again for the popular balloon glow that lights up the night.

Many pilots, including Fritze, went on impromptu private flights prior to the festival when the weather proved just right. Fritze, who has also flown in Florida, Ohio, New Jersey, South Carolina and North Carolina and has been coming to Maine for eight years, said that the region’s wide spaces for landing and spectacular views make for some of the best flying he has ever done.

Though not all the familiar pilots were able to return, those who did spent much of the festival catching up with friends and introducing newcomers to the joys of flying hot air balloons in northern Maine.

Michael Lavoie of West Ossipee, New Hampshire, was one of three new pilots in the festival line-up. But Lavoie is no stranger to Aroostook County. In fact, visiting the region in the 1980s first introduced him and his late wife Tammy to the world of ballooning.

In 1981, the couple was visiting Tammy’s parents in Washburn prior to their wedding. While skydiving at the airport in Presque Isle, they noticed a hot air balloon in the sky and later met the pilot.

“He took us up to 6,000 feet and we missed our wedding rehearsal,” Lavoie said.

Clockwise from left: Spellbound Spirit II, piloted by Randy Lee of Four Oaks, North Carolina, prepares to launch from the Northern Maine Fairgrounds Saturday evening; Freedom Flyer (right) prepares to take off while Spellbound Spirit II gets fueled up; and hot-air balloons fill the skies above the Northern Maine Fairgrounds. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / The Presque Isle Star-Herald

The Lavoies earned their pilot licenses in the 1990s and owned at least seven balloons in the years that followed. Schmedley, the pink, black and light blue balloon that Lavoie flew during the Crown of Maine Festival, is one that Tammy designed. The balloon features three stripes on the top and bottom and a series of connected squares in the middle.

Lavoie, who has flown throughout New England, the western United States, Canada, France and England, said that being part of the festival allowed him to see fellow pilots that he has not seen since the pandemic. The festival also reconnected him with the region of northern Maine he and his late wife visited often.

“The people here are very welcoming. It brings back a lot of memories from years past,” Lavoie said. “The fact that people travel from such a great distance to fly here tells me that it’s a special place.”

Those who watched the Saturday evening launch also said that they felt a similar beauty and awe as the colorful balloons filled the skies above the fairgrounds.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” said Sarah Deveau of Littleton, who attended the festival for the first time with her son Kip, 8. “I think the festival is great at getting the community together. It’s good to see people out and seeing each other again.”

Even people who were unable to see the balloons launch when they were grounded due to the strong winds noticed the friendly spirit of community that keeps the pilots returning year after year. Steve Poirier of Billerica, Massachusetts, enjoyed local food from vendors and visited with several pilots when he visited the festival with his family Friday evening.

“Everyone here is super nice,” Poirier said. “This is our first time here and we’ll definitely be back.”