As the sun started to peek over the horizon Friday, a group of people gathered at Amend Park to exchange stories and make a plan. The crowd quieted for a moment when a someone let go of a lone balloon, releasing it into the air. They weren’t watching the balloon for a symbolic reason; they were checking the direction and speed of the wind.
But as the tiny balloon became a small speck in the sky, the crowd had much bigger balloons in mind.
Friday morning marked the first day of the last Magic City Hot Air Balloon Rally in Billings. The crowd of people that met first at Amend Park contained hot air balloon pilots, crews and people interested in seeing the massive balloons take off.
The balloons, five in total, did not take off at Amend Park. The group formulated a plan to relocate to Centennial Park and launch from there.
Dave Lang, a pilot from Canada, said he has participated in balloon rallies in Billings for 20 years, but he is sad to see the Magic City Hot Air Balloon Rally come to an end.
“After coming here for all of these years, it’s definitely sad to see something like this come to an end,” Lang said.
The Magic City Hot Air Balloon Rally began in 2005, while Billings has had balloon rallies since 1994.
Because of declining sponsorship and participation for the event, all of which is free to the public, the rally will end after the three-day event concludes Sunday. The rally this year has five balloons, including a hot air blimp brought by the environmental group Greenpeace.
Cheryl Rivera, who has been on the board of the rally since it’s inception, said after nine years, it’s tough to see the rally finish.
“It’s very near and dear to my heart,” Rivera said. “Pilots come back every year because they enjoy Billings and its scenery. It’ll be sad to see it go.”
The event once attracted 50 balloons, Rivera said, but funding lessened and only a few sponsors continued to support the rally. Some of the sponsors this year included Industrial Measurement & Control, Dairy Queen, Pathways and Ledgestone Hotel.
Although many of the people who attended Friday’s morning launch were from the respective balloon crews, there were spectators as well.
“Some people come out to cross something off their bucket list and ride in a balloon,” Rivera said. “Some sponsors send out employees to ride in the balloons. There are a lot of friendships made between pilots, crews and people at the rally.”
The balloon rally will continue Saturday and Sunday morning, where the balloon crews will meet at Amend Park at 5:30 a.m. to decide on a launch point in the city.
Much like Friday morning, the crews will take off from the specified location and launch.
“The pilots and the balloons fly wherever the wind takes them,” Rivera said.
If there is little wind, the balloons almost hang in the air, suspended until a breeze moves them along. The only exception is the Greenpeace blimp, which has a motor to propel it so it can land where it takes off.
There will also be a Saturday evening balloon glow at BMP Speedway after the races.
The Greenpeace blimp, sported the messages “Keep our coal in the ground” and “Coal experts fuel climate change.” According to a press release, the group is doing so to highlight the risks of coal exporting and mining in the western United States.
Even as the balloons may leave the ground for the last time as the Magic City Hot Air Balloon Rally, hope for future events in Billings has given Rivera some optimism.
“In the future, pilots may come back,” Rivera said. “It might not be organized either, but it is possible.”
Lang echoed Rivera, hoping for future events, even if there might not be sponsorship for an event.
“You never know,” Lang said, “something like this can rise out of the ashes.”