PLAINVILLE — Firefighters are hard at work preparing Norton Park for the Plainville Fire Company’s Hot Air Balloon Festival, which is now in its 35th year.
“This event gets better and better every year and we just want people to come out and enjoy themselves,” said Jim Lenois Sr., festival chairman.
The event begins Friday night and ends Sunday. Balloons lift off from that park at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturday and on Sunday morning. After the first launch on Saturday, craft and food vendors take over the park. A total of 120 booths are expected along with an antique car show that runs from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m.
Friday night also features the balloon glow — balloons are inflated and the burners turned on just enough to make the envelopes radiant in the twilight. The glow is followed by a fireworks show. Food is also available.
This year parking will not be available at the former General Electric lot on Woodford Avenue. Instead, free shuttles will run from Plainville High School and Robertson Airport on Friday and Saturday night, when public parking at Norton Park is prohibited. Parking is permitted at the park for the morning launches as long as cars are removed prior to 9 a.m.Hot air balloons a classic from the company centennial
Former Fire Chief David Laurie was one of the firefighters who marched through Plainville on August 25, 1985 — the 100th anniversary of the fire department’s incorporation. Laurie said fellow firefighter Bill Chamberlain was the “sparkplug” in gathering balloonists from across the state to launch from Norton Park in the first Hot Air Balloon Festival.
“Personally I had never seen one except in the movies... And they’re huge, very colorful,” Laurie said.
The festival took on more of a family atmosphere in the subsequent years, including music and a craft show. Gone is the beer tent firefighters flocked to after marching through town.
Laurie estimated about 4,000 attended the first festival. The event now draws at least 20,000, including firefighters from around the state.
“If you look at the town website and the signs around town what does it have on it? Balloons … that’s what we’re known for,” Lenois said. “It’s one event in town that everybody looks forward to and it gets everybody coming together.”
The event is the fire company’s biggest fundraiser, yielding around $20,000 annually. The money goes toward equipment, donations to the food pantry and scholarships for seniors at Plainville High School.
Santo Galatioto, former president of the Connecticut Lighter than Air Society, said the dozens of pilots and crew who bring their balloons to the festival view it as a way to engage the community and as a reunion.
“It’s an incredible feeling and it’s incredibly beautiful sight to see all of the different patterns on each balloon, because in this part of the country it is rare that you see two balloons that look alike. Each one is essentially unique and it’s a joy to see that and experience it,” he said.