by Mark Zenow

Hot air balloon enthusiasts were treated to an eyeful last weekend as thousands gathered under blue skies for the 38th annual Carolina BalloonFest.

The three-day festival, held at the Statesville Regional Airport, brought together hot air balloon pilots and spectators from up and down the east coast to watch the nearly 50 so-called “gentle giants” take to the air and drift gracefully over Lake Norman.

Statesville plays host to this event, the second oldest hot air balloon festival in the country, in part because the industry has roots here.  Many people from across the Lake Norman area take part either as pilots or spectators.

At one point, as a balloon sprawled along the ground began to inflate, its crew chief warned nearby spectators, “look out, she’s coming atcha.” Then the lifeless patchwork of multi-colored panels began to fill with air, and rolled slowly towards a family seated on blankets and lawn chairs.

The group quickly grabbed its gear and relocated a few feet back, watching with wide smiles as the balloon sprang to life and lifted off, leaving only a momentary shadow in its wake.

Fans say it’s the intimacy that makes this event unique.

Like being in the pits at a NASCAR race, onlookers seemed to have few boundaries, able to touch the nylon envelope as it fills with air, peer through flames as they blast past the flame-resistant skirt, and even holding down the wicker basket as riders hurry to climb aboard before the anti-gravitational pull upon which the balloon relies for life overcomes those attempting to restrain its rise.

Proceeds benefited the American Cancer Society Relay for Life of Statesville and Purple Heart Homes, a non-profit that helps provide quality of life housing solutions for veterans who have been injured or disabled in the line of duty.

In addition to both morning and evening ascensions, festival attendees were entertained by a variety of bands, a kid’s zone with games and attractions, a collection of arts and craft vendors, and booths selling local craft beers and wines from North Carolina wineries.