Up, Up and Away!

Balloon Fest 2017 turns the N.C. sky into a show over Memorial Day weekend

FUQUAY-VARINA — The sky was a kaleidoscope over eastern Wake County for Memorial Day weekend. The annual Freedom Balloon Fest, put on by Project Uplift USA, Raleigh Jaycees and WRAL, welcomed an estimated 80,000 visitors lining country roads and spreading out thousands of blankets. Fleming Park in Fuquay-Varina was suddenly full of families, food trucks and flags as the hot air balloons took to the sky.”It’s amazing when you get up there. It’s just peace, but you can see for miles and miles and miles,” said John Usedom, one of the organizers of Project Uplift. “It just makes people realize you can do so much more than what you think you’re capable of.”It’s one of the biggest event of the year for Fuquay-Varina and for Project Uplift USA. A, N.C.-based nonprofit, Project Uplift USA was founded with the idea of bringing a unique hot air balloon experience to wounded veterans and their families as they try to assimilate back into their lives. The group has one of just 10 handicapped accessible balloon baskets in the world so wounded veterans and their families can get a bird’s eye view together.”Once they get up into the air they can see that the sky’s the limit in what you can do no matter what’s wrong or what’s happened to you,” said Usedom.Balloon Fest 2017 featured 37 balloons, with bands throughout the day, food trucks, a beer garden, merchants and displays. Tethered balloon rides were around $20, but the festival was was free to attend and volunteer-run. There were mass liftoffs every morning that weather would allow and a stunning nightly glow show. Balloon pilot Patrick Grogan of Treetop Flyers in Mooresville was there drawing a crowd with his colorful balloon. He is looking forward to having his ballooning business take off after he retires from N.C.’s Department of Environmental Quality next month. He’s worked for 33 years in public water supply, but started flying balloons for fun after discovering them at the 1990 Statesville Balloon Rally. “It’s a full-time hobby for us, but right now I do enough to pay for it,” said Grogan. “Brand new, a 90,000-cubic foot balloon like this one will run you about $30,000-35,000. All the triangle-shaped baskets you see here are made in Statesville, N.C. The Balloon Works is the only manufacturer in the work to make triangle-shaped baskets.”The Wonder Bread balloon appeared at Balloon Fest as part of a promotional tour and was giving $5 to Project Uplift USA for every social media post of the balloon that used #spotthewonder. The packaging of Wonder Bread was designed in 1921 to reflect the beauty of a sky full of hot air balloons. The average hot air balloon measures about 90 feet high and 70 feet wide with as much volume inside for 90,000 basketballs. Grogan said a balloon can use 43 million British thermal units (BTU) an hour. Science aside, it was the size of these beauties kept the crowds enthralled and ready to come back next year.”I’ve never seen anything like this — it’s amazing!” said Alexis Sales, 19, from Southern Pines. “I would love to go up in one.”If you missed Balloon Fest 2017 but still want to mark hot air ballooning off your bucket list this summer, it’s not too late. Throughout the summer these pilots will be visiting festivals across the state and offering private balloon rides. For now, this is one of the only places in N.C. where you can see them all at once in a memorable kaleidoscope of color. Project Uplift and the Balloon Fest organizers say it’s also a gentle reminder to honor Americans who have given their lives in defense of the nation. “We have 12 military nonprofits here and we are helping them raise awareness and funds for their missions working with disabled veterans, those still in the military or coming back,” said Usedom. “This is really to bring attention back to what Memorial Day is really about.”