Strong, gusty breezes blowing in from the north canceled the 43rd Great Forest Park Balloon Glow on Friday night.

Undaunted, balloon pilots thrilled the huge crowds with blasts from the burners for nearly three hours, according to John Marlow, balloon pilot and one of the founders of what has become the largest free event in the country.

All day Saturday, balloon pilots kept a nervous eye on the clouds blowing across the brilliant blue sky over Forest Park, as thousands of families and friends enjoyed the festivities. It was perfect weather for kids to enjoy the giant inflatables, attempt the very tall climbing rock, or watch demonstrations by the St. Louis Elite Gymnastics Team.

By mid afternoon, pilots determined that the winds were just too strong to inflate the giant hot air balloons for the popular Wehrenberg Theatres photo contest at 2:00 p.m. Families that had pushed baby strollers, carried coolers, cameras and chairs into Forest Park to find the perfect spot were content to wait patiently behind the ropes. Many festival-goers waited in long lines for favorites like funnel cakes, BBQ sandwiches, popcorn, cotton candy and anything cold to drink in the food court area.

Pet lovers crowded around the Purina Entertainment area to watch trainers take athletic dogs through their paces catching frisbees. A Petting Zoo and a Purina Farms agility course and a variety of games and crafts, provided hours of entertainment for families gathered at Central Fields.

Miller Lite Skydivers thrilled the spectators as they came into view at the northwest corner of the park just after 3:00 p.m. Cheers greeted each one as they arrived safely in the middle of field. The crowd generously applauded the skydiver carrying the giant American flag through the turbulent wind.

(L – R) Saint Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay, John Marlow, balloon pilot and one of the founders, and Greg Hayes, Department of Parks, Recreation & Forestry during opening ceremonies for the Great Forest Park Balloon Race.

Opening ceremonies began at 3:30 p.m., as John Marlow welcomed everyone and shared a few memories of past events. “My partners and I were balloonists and we wanted to have some fun. We never imagined that it would grow to such a major event. It’s free and will always be free.”

Greg Hayes, new director, Department of Parks, Recreation & Forestry, noted that “This park has 13 million visitors a year and you are amongst them today. We couldn’t be more proud to have folks like you take time out of your busy schedules to come here and enjoy the park. We’re proud of partners that make a race like this happen like Forest Park Forever and various community groups and our city staff. It’s a great day for the City of St. Louis.”

On the south side of the field, race officials and pilots of nearly sixty balloons gathered for a meeting at 4:00 p.m. to review procedures for takeoff, listen to instructions for flight patterns and the detailed weather report from Jon Carney, official race meteorologist.

Race official Dan Schettler announced that the PNC balloon would take off as the “Hare” Balloon. He noted that if the pilots were unable to get their balloon off the ground, the Fox2News balloon, piloted by the “Flying Tomato Brothers” would be considered the backup. Pilots were told that it was their decision whether to stay tethered or take off in the chase. He added the window of opportunity for launch closed at 5:50 p.m.

After a short 15 minute delay, pilots quickly began the process of unfurling colorful balloons and hitching up baskets. While walking toward her crew, Janice Sines, piloting Fontbonne University’s ‘Soaring Eagle 11’ for the Bethesda Health Group, commented that she had been flying for nearly 40 years and today’s strong winds were a concern. “We’ll wait a bit to see if the winds diminish.”

The crowds watched anxiously as Larry Salters, pilot of the giant ‘Orange Blossom’ balloon, struggled to inflate the envelope with powerful bursts from the butane burner. Spectators cheered as it began to lift off and fell silent when the balloon was quickly brought back down. Members from other nearby crews rushed in to help steady the balloon. It swayed back and forth, at times hovering just feet over the ground crew. After several more hectic attempts, the balloon lifted off from the field to begin its official flight as the “Hare”. The “Hounds” soon followed.

Keeping with tradition, each pilot and balloon was announced and sent on their way with “Have a safe flight.” Several balloons carried special passengers for a thrilling ride over south St. Louis neighborhoods and along the Mississippi River.

Balloon pilots gathered for a meeting at 4:00 p.m. to review procedures for takeoff of the 43rd Great Forest Park Balloon Race.

Spectators gathered near the ropes to take photos of the balloons lifting off from Central Fields in Forest Park.

Crew members hold the Wicked the Musical Balloon as pilot Stan Hess fires the burners.

Spectators on the north side of Central Fields watched the last balloons lift off for the chase in the 43rd Great Forest Park Balloon Race.