IMMOKALEE — By 8 a.m., the winds were up, and the balloons were down.
Strong easterly breezes in Immokalee on Saturday morning made it impossible for the 30-plus hot air balloons at the heart of the Balloons over Paradise festival to fly out of the Immokalee Regional Airport, frustrating the pilots who wanted to soar, and the crowd that wanted to watch.
Rather than fly out, drifting slowly over the horizon, the aeronauts went to their fallback position. The dawn “balloon glow,” in which the balloons were inflated and illuminated by 10-foot-long licks of flame from their powerful propane burners, went on as scheduled. So the hundreds of spectators who had gotten up early to be a part of a spectacle did get their spectacle.
A dozen balloons rose into the dark sky over the airfield, with the pilots pulling the toggles that shot out the jets of gas flame, and ground crews and volunteers tugging on ropes to keep them tethered in place. The first of the lighter-than-air craft to achieve inflation, fittingly, bore the colorful logo of festival sponsor Seminole Casino Immokalee.
One by one, additional balloons filled up and took their shapes, rubbing up against each other as the breeze tugged at them. Dozens of photographers ringed the wicker baskets, snapping photos from every angle.
“There must be a million dollars’ worth of cameras out here,” photographer Marcel Seamples said.
Along with the standard, brightly colored tulip-shaped balloons, the fleet included the three-dimensional flower “Miss Daisy”; the pink “Ham-let,” the world’s largest flying pig; and the “Purple People Eater,” a cheerful flying monster complete with tentacles.
While the balloonists provided the glow, Drums ’n’ Strings, a classical string quartet augmented by a high-energy rock drummer, serenaded spectators from the stage.
Announcer Denny Floden, one of the most experienced balloonists in the world, provided color commentary. Along with hot air balloons, he said, there are gas balloons, with helium favored over hydrogen for its safety and lack of flammability.
A typical hot air balloon, containing more than 70,000 cubic feet of hot air when inflated, costs from $20,000 to $40,000, and to fly it, the pilot needs a license from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), specifically for lighter-than-air craft.
Saturday morning, though, no one flew.
“We’re just over our (limit),” said veteran balloon pilot Bob Carlton, in charge of coordinating the aeronautical aspect of the festival. “The FAA says we have to have winds at eight knots or under, and we’re at nine knots.”
An FAA flight safety inspector was on hand to make the determination, and the winds grew stronger as the morning progressed. By the time the sun rose fully, the wind-blown flags on the vendors’ tents were standing straight out.
With children’s games and bands, there were plenty of activities to hold the attention of the crowds even after all the balloons were packed away. Only a few wicker baskets were on display to remind people that this was, after all, a balloon festival.
The festival resumes Sunday with activities scheduled from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. All performances and activities are free; parking is $5.
With puffs of gas and a whoosh of flame, some 15 hot-air balloons rose over the horizon at the Immokalee Regional Airport this morning, April 14, shortly after 6 a.m.
The wind level kept the balloons tethered to the ground, but crowds poured into the town to see them, causing at least 15-minute backups for parking in the predawn hours.
“Balloons Over Paradise” continues from 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday and 6 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday at the Immokalee Regional Airport. Sunday attendees may find easier going to park at the Seminole Casino Immokalee on the west side of town and take its shuttle out to the airport.
Some enterprising residents were offering $10 parking; at the airport itself, parking is $5, and a shuttle is still required.
Even as early as 6 a.m. festival goers could buy sausage sandwiches and waffles on a stick and enjoy a string quartet as they watched the balloons inflate.