In this 2015 file photo, Colorful balloons gather for an evening launch at the Northern Maine Fairground during the Crown of Maine Balloon Fest. This year's festival will take place in Presque Isle Thursday, Aug. 25, through Sunday, Aug. 28. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Crown of Maine Balloon Fest will make its 19th annual return flight to Presque Isle with 12 hot-air balloons.

The event will run from Thursday, Aug. 25 to Sunday, Aug. 28 at the Northern Maine Fairgrounds.

The festival typically draws 4,000 to 8,000 visitors to Presque Isle, organizers said, a boon for Aroostook County. Statewide hospitality saw a strong start this season following last year’s 61 percent growth in economic impact from tourism thanks to a relaxation of pandemic restrictions. The family event fits The County’s ongoing push to appeal to more families and youth.

Over the years, the Balloon Fest has added food, crafts, games, movies and live music to appeal to all ages. Vendors from all over Maine will set up at the fairgrounds, and balloon passengers from 12 states have already registered, said Jordyn Madore, co-chairperson of the event.

“Those are just the people that have signed up to attend, so it is clear that people are traveling to our beautiful county for a fun, new experience,” Madore said.

Madore’s favorite moments are the mass ascensions, when people can see up close as the massive balloons all rise.

“The looks on passengers’ faces that have never flown before are priceless, too,” she said.

Others enjoy the nighttime glows, when pilots light up the balloons from within, while others are addicted to the thrill of the chase — and like joining the volunteer effort to work with the pilots as ground crew members.

Jill Willette of Presque Isle is one of those. She and her husband, Jeff, their sons Noah, 16, and Jase, 8, along with her mother, Lori Thibodeau, have worked for five years on balloon crews.

It all began with Noah. He would get up at 5 a.m. to visit Bruce and Dolores Roope, longtime friends of pilot Wendell Purvis, a festival stalwart who often stays at the Roopes’ Presque Isle home. Noah’s fascination with balloons was contagious, and now the family is among the regulars.

“I can’t think of a more family-friendly event than the balloon festival,” she said.

Part of what keeps them involved are the connections that develop with the pilots, who become like family, Willette said.

While her husband is impressed with the physics of flight and the pilots’ skill, 8-year-old Jase likes to lend a hand packing up the balloon and looks forward to breakfast afterward, she said.  

The propane burner heats the air inside Wendell Purvis’ balloon Tracer 5 during the 2019 Crown of Maine Balloon Fest. (Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald)

Nearly 50 people have signed up to help on flight crews, said Pam Sutherland, who coordinates the volunteers. About five people are needed per balloon.

After unpacking, crews lay the ballon out on the field. While some handle guide ropes, others hold the balloon’s base open during inflation, which requires paying attention and not getting in the way of the flame, Sutherland said.

As the balloon starts to stand, crew members have to keep a constant weight on the lines to make sure it rises in a controlled manner. When people have boarded and the pilot signals, the crew lets go. Then comes the chase to where the balloon lands and everyone pitches in to pack it up again.

It’s been an addictive pursuit for Sutherland.

“We become like family, if you are as lucky as I am to have a pilot like Wendell Purvis, who has been coming to the festival for as long as I have been crewing — which I think is 14 years or so,” she said. “I have wonderful fond memories of flying with Wendell and seeing our beautiful Presque Isle from above.”

The festival will start Thursday, Aug. 25, with opening ceremonies at 5 p.m. Mass ascensions, weather permitting, are planned Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 5:30 a.m. from the fairgrounds.

A Ride for a Cure ATV Ride will start from the fairgrounds at 9 a.m., hosted by Team Click for a Cure.

Music will include local favorites Wally and the Virginian Thursday at 4 p.m. and Star City Syndicate Friday at 4 p.m. A craft and vendor fair will be held on site and there will be food vendors and a beer garden.

The festival’s new title sponsor, Thompson Financial Group, will present family fun activities Saturday from 1 to 4 p.m. and The Great TFG Balloon Chase 5K race on Sunday starting at 6:15 a.m. Other sponsors include around 25 local businesses and service groups.

Pilots had booked all of their available flights as of Aug. 4, organizers said.

For a complete schedule of events, visit the Crown of Maine Balloon Fest’s Facebook page.