More than 100 balloons managed to launch in the small window of favorable conditions. The crowd cheered as the first balloon left the ground at around 8:40 a.m., well after the scheduled 7 a.m. mass ascension. A 6:30 a.m. dawn patrol flight was canceled shortly after balloons began to inflate.
“The wind was pushing us around some,” said Rick Jones, a dawn patrol pilot from New Hampshire.
Bundled attendees held tight to warm beverages and breakfast burritos, undeterred by the delay.
Sydney and Susie Keller, visitors from Arvada, Colo., sat on the massive lawn, holding out hope that they’d still see balloons, that their waking up at 4 a.m. would not be for nothing.
Sydney, 15, said she was preparing for disappointment, so an ascension would be “extra exciting.” That, she said, was better than “having that hope and then it gets smooshed.” She’s attended the fiesta before, but it was her mother’s first time, though she has been to smaller balloon rallies.
“This is on a much more epic scale,” Susie Keller said. “Everyone talks about how awesome it is.”
Visitors who waited out the delay were rewarded. A Balloon Fiesta spokesman said that around 175 balloons filled a cloudy sky in the small window after the wind and before the rain. Families and friends posed for pictures in front of inflating balloons, huddled around baskets, enjoying warmth from the burners.
“There’s just a sense of wonder,” Samantha Specht said, watching balloons inflate and take flight. “I feel like a little kid.”
Specht and Mario Garcia, who recently moved to Española from Hawaii, arrived early and were impressed with how hands-on the fiesta is. Specht said she was amazed by the variety of nationalities represented and that pilots were so accessible and willing to chat with attendees.
“It’s such a cool interaction,” she said.
But rain clouds soon appeared over Downtown, and inflated balloons slowly came down. Crews rolled them up and stuffed them into giant bags.
Those clouds made their way to the park, dumping about a tenth of an inch within an hour, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Randall Hergert.
“It kind of drenched on everyone’s plans this morning,” Hergert said.
As guests hustled to their cars, an announcer called Saturday a “weather unusual day.”
“Into every life, rain must fall,” he said.
Cindy Charles, who drove from a Denver suburb to attend this year’s event, sat in the rain at a picnic table with her 4-year-old son watching videos on her phone and waiting for the shuttle line to die down.
“We’re outdoorsy,” she said, adding that they’d come dressed in plenty of layers. “This is not that big of a deal.”
Charles said Saturday’s fiesta lived up to the hype and they’d likely come back. Even the shortened version of the event was an impressive sight.
“Maybe we’ll come back a different year and try again,” she said, “because it is amazing.”
As Charles and her family joined the shuttle line, announcements warned guests to seek shelter because the park was under a weather warning for lightning. Some waited out the storm in crowded vendor tents, while others scurried toward the exits.
Today’s forecast shows similar weather: a 40 percent chance of rain, likely accompanied by slightly stronger winds, Hergert said.
BALLOON FIESTA SCHEDULE